The lazy way to describe Joel and Ethan Coen’s wonderful new film, Inside Llewyn Davis, would be to say that it’s about the iconic Greenwich Village folk music scene in the 1960s that was populated with scraggly hang-dog heroes like Bob Dylan, but like any significant piece of artistic expression those labels are far too simplistic for a film whose brutally honest portrayal of failure and coming to terms with the fact that you may just be ordinary mark another high note in the Coen Brothers’ stunningly inventive oeuvre. New York City and Greenwich Village may be the setting and the 1960s may be the time period in which the film takes place, but these details merely act as a kind of pervasive reservoir of pessimistic influence surrounding the Coens’ bedraggled titular character (played with a perfect mixture of tender social malfunction and recalcitrant isolation by Oscar Isaac). He is a singer of potential talent but has nothing to differentiate himself among the busy crowd despite his stubborn battle between doing something that actually matters versus protecting his personally ascribed sense of authenticity. When asked about the film’s subject matter at the NYFF press conference, Joel Coen rhetorically responded, “The success movies have been done, haven’t they?” Now having seen and heard what he and his brother have tried to say, their ode to mediocrity unequivocally ranks Inside Llewyn Davis among the best movies of the year.
At the same press conference, Ethan Coen called the film “An Odyssey in which the main character doesn’t go anywhere,” which makes sense for the character in proximity and talent. Llewyn strums his acoustic guitar—in wonderfully unabridged musical performances produced by the Coens’ O Brother Where Art Thou? music producer, T-Bone Burnett—in the real-life ramshackle bars on Macdougal Street like the Café Wha? or the Kettle of Fish, and then pleads his way from apartment to apartment to couch surf until his next gig pulls him back downtown to do it all over again. He tends to crash on a particularly friendly Columbia professor’s couch but mostly stays at the apartment of Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan), a married folk duo who play the same clubs as he does. Mulligan and Timberlake are among the first group of people who make appearances as extended cameos that stumble in and out of Llewyn’s life and whose interactions with him string his suffering conscience along, mostly in this case because Jean finds out she’s pregnant and Llewyn may or may not be the father. Another brief influence on the singer is John Goodman’s performance as an esoteric anti-folk jazz-man windbag who shares a Chicago-bound road trip with Llewyn that neither gives him a sense of direction nor browbeats him into finding it out for himself.
He’s constantly intimidated into examining his situation and ultimately finds that doing so is a stifling and sobering exercise of looking in the mirror only to find that he isn’t exceptional. Isaac’s performance during each assorted vignette finds the essential sincerity in the habitually downtrodden character having to accept failure without devolving into total misery, and despite the audience’s expectation that there will be a clichéd Hollywood epiphany that absolves Llewyn from such grief—like when he finally gets to Chicago to play songs for a famed producer named Bud Grossman, played by F. Murray Abraham—the Coens wisely stick to a bittersweet pragmatism that grounds the story in reality. Llewyn’s reality has him bouncing between all these points, but he seems to revolve around and react to certain specific misfortunes to define him such as an ominous potential son from another fling, the upsetting loss of his former singing partner, or the hassle of taking care of a cat that escaped an apartment he was crashing at as some of the main reasons he’s become so rudderless.
As for any laughs, the trademark Coen Brothers humor is in there but instead of the expected wackiness it’s played with a sarcasm organic to the story instead of being an odd distraction. For instance, the absurd satirical song “Please Mr. Kennedy,” sung by Timberlake’s Jim and Adam Driver as a faux-cowboy named Al Cody with Isaac’s Llewyn reluctantly accompanying them, serves the plot point of his friends effectively selling out but also makes for ostensibly something only the Coen Brothers could pull off. The film will allegedly be the last Coen Brothers movie to be shot on film, and the look of it is slightly unlike anything the Coens have ever done either. Instead of going with Roger Deakins, their go-to cinematographer, they enlisted the help of French D.P. Bruno Delbonnel to lend the film a gauzy chilliness that recalls the famous cover art of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan with its slushy downtown Manhattan streets covered by a permanently grey sky.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a movie about someone standing next to greatness, about a person unable to differentiate themselves and who will never become the icon that defines a generation. It is then a story about the majority of us, those who attempt to do the best they can despite being knocked down, who, for better or worse, have persisted yet will remain defiantly ordinary whether we like it or not. It is a remarkable movie about being perfectly okay.