Dec. 06--"Inside Llewyn Davis" is a feast for Joel and Ethan Coen fans.
Specifically, this study of a failing, flailing folk singer in 1961 Greenwich Village often brings back memories of the brothers' most musical movie, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (and that film's T Bone Burnett and Skip Lievsay oversaw "Llewyn's" remarkably pristine and resonant soundtrack).
As talented but underappreciated Llewyn suffers one career setback, personal disaster and absurd indignity after another, though, it seems more and more like the Coen movie this one most resembles is "Barton Fink."
No one captures artistic misanthropy and the loss of creative love quite like this pair of unlikely auteurs, and with this latest work they prove they might be even more engaged by that subject than they are by offbeat crime stories.
With his soulfully angry, circumstantially cat-obsessed portrayal of Llewyn, Guatemala-born, Miami-raised Oscar Isaac achieves major find status. And boy, can he ever sing out, bringing a gritty, bluesy but note-perfect quality to darker traditional songs than audiences were quite ready for during what was still a neatly sweatered, Kingston Trio-dominated phase of the midcentury folk explosion.
Llewyn keeps getting upstaged by sweeter voices, played by the likes of Justin Timberlake, that stick to prettier fare such as "Five Hundred Miles" and "The Last Thing on My Mind" ... you know, the ones we all sing along to on the album.
The Coens ruthlessly expose the tyranny of consensus taste throughout "Llewyn Davis," even in such an "alternative" field as folk music (and by extension, perhaps, the indie film world that's nurtured them but balks at other, equally uncompromising artists). And they top it all off with a dark joke indicating that poor Llewyn might have been just a little bit ahead of his time -- or is it that he'll always be behind the curve?
Adam Driver ("Girls") provides terrific vocal humor for the film's standout new composition, "Please Mr. Kennedy." Carey Mulligan is a source of lovely harmony, at least when she's singing and not being the angriest beatnik chick in the world. And John Goodman is once again magisterially vile as another one of his Coen creatures from another world, this time the world of jazz.
The movie isn't all about music. Bruno Delbonnel's moody blue cinematography is some of the best lensing of the year.
Go, see and hear; you'll be glad you did.
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