Inside Llewyn Davis is Joel and Ethan Coen’s folk-tale hootenanny ramble through the Greenwich Village of 1961, long before it was laid siege to by the professional beatniks, condo speculators and art tourists of today. Proclaimed ironically as an empty vessel, Llewyn’s repertoire and attitude are slightly borrowed from Dave Van Ronk, who threw a grand, moody shadow over the New York folk scene before Bob Dylan arrived from Hibbing to change everything. Oscar Isaac, a short, stocky, Guatemalan hunk plays Llewyn, as the simple sum of the selfish soulfulness in his deep, liquid brown eyes, and a sort of smug dexterity at performing on the guitar. Isaac owns a fine tenor’s voice far superior to Van Ronk’s. Indeed, although it’s about nailing period detail, the Coen Brothers are never about biography so much as the mood. It’s a sort of walking cool PhD thesis on pop culture on the cusp of the Beatles.
As with Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? and the classic Barton Fink, it’s a Holy Grail quest from point F to point Y. Llewyn, very much enamored of himself and his cock, go many places, but ultimately nowhere. The traveling life is brave but lonesome; whether he’s crashing in Queen’s or the West Side, Llewyn always outstays his welcome. There’s not much backstory given beyond Llewyn grieving over the death of his old musical partner. Always placing himself at the mercy of others, Llewyn is often less the naïf he wants the mean old universe to think he is and more just plain stupid. “You’re like King Midas’s idiot brother,” says Jean (Carey Mulligan), another savvier folk singer.
Relentlessly self-absorbed to the point of parody, Llewyn works hard at building his legend; swearing in front of children, verbally abusing his hosts, losing a friend’s cat. It’s all petty. But more than now and again, he ups the anté. Heckling other singers at the Gaslight club. Planting his seed in one wide-eyed young female admirer after another, including Jean. Indeed, Jean is a special case. One he is bound and determined to malevolently render unto doom because he’s so jealous of her duet partner, Jim (Justin Timberlake). Nothing really touches Llewyn beyond a twinge of regret over the ginger Tom, the only one of his victims truly neglected by accident.
A man-child, Llewyn excuses himself because the adults he deals with are far more bitter and damaged than he is. A road trip with the nastiest loser, a heroin-addled toad of a jazz musician (John Goodman) is so oppressive it’s asphyxiating. Yet, the nice ones are almost their own geek show. Jim, and a couple of tall, gee-whizz singers, Stark Sands and Adam Driver, who may or may not be caricatures of Rambling Jack Elliott and Tom Paxton, happy visitors from Planet Cali. All slightly gruesome obstacles for a hubris-befuddled man-child to pass over, around, under or through.
In a Coen Brothers’ film, contentment is not on the cards. Surrounded by mediocrity, jealousy and the vicious realities that confront anyone without a trust fund if they go into a career in the arts, Llewyn is predestined to fail. A day late and many dollars short, our man-child arrives just weeks ahead of the poetic Dylan, and the true game-changer, the working class heroes, the Beatles.
Timing is everything and Llewyn is just a bit off, timing-wise; or else, a bit off more than he can chew. Yes, Joel and Ethan are laughing at us all, whether it’s Llewyn or the hundreds of dead souls reflected in the subway train window. Which leads me to Oscar Isaac. Isaac is fantastic. So good looking, Isaac refuses to go for something more calibrated, more winsome.
Inside Llewyn Davis fairly shimmers in its unique beauty for the Coens and their awesome crew. The film’s art director, Deborah Jensen; its production designer Jess Gonchor and the cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel, recreate a winter-bound Manhattan of beatnik bravado, pegged pants, Cuban heels, espresso-bar steam, and poor poetry. The inhibited beauty of its innate sense of melancholy takes this film beyond the notion of entertainment. Ever more against interpretation, the Coens etch out no distinctions between abstract truth and cynicism, sincerity, artifice and the artificial. Yet for anyone who sees only a sneer, there’s Llewyn singing “Shoals of Herring” in his father’s room at a rest home for retired seamen. Just for once, beyond when he’s holding the cat, he sings out his whole humanity, and we are moved.