Llewyn Davis, the rumpled anti-hero at the center of the Coen brothers' latest bravura release, is his own worst enemy. It's 1961, and the luckless folk singer is camping out on other musicians' sofas, seemingly incapable of even taking care of a wayward cat. He's barely eking out a living in Greenwich Village and offends almost anyone who gives a damn about him.
As created by writer-director team of Joel and Ethan Coen and acted with guile and candor by newcomer Oscar Isaac, Davis, the self-destructive singer with a soulful voice and talent, is one of the year's unique and uncompromising protagonists.
That's because he's a jerk. The Coens don't let him off the hook, either, even when they reveal what has contributed to his bad behavior. Llewyn is fascinating company to keep -- so long as it's at a distance.
"Inside Llewyn Davis" is one of those Coen brothers' movies like "A Simple Man," where there's not much of a plot to speak of, just a piercing, evocative sense of a time and place and the characters contained within it.
With its abiding appreciation for music, "Davis" will likely be seen as a cousin to the duo's peppy George Clooney romp "O Brother Where Art Thou" from 2000. Both, after all, are "journey" stories with the protagonists brushing up next to characters both mythical and near-mythic. But the tone couldn't be more different. "Davis" is a more somber character study of a musician's life.
There are songs and iconlike characters aplenty sprinkled in, with actual locations such as the Gaslight Cafe -- a real-life hub for the folk singing scene back then -- figuring prominently.
The Coens set their story before the advent of Dylan and the folk music explosion, depositing Llewyn in an era when record labels sought acts with musical hooks and matinee idol looks.
The unkempt Llewyn knows how to sing but lacks star quality or charisma. So he seeks handouts, and then some, from cute married signing duo Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake). Jim helps him land a solid gig; recording the infectious tune "Please Mr. Kennedy," the film's most high-spirited ditty with Timberlake, Isaac and Adam Driver of "Girls" in a hilarious, show-stopping number. The bubbly tune is just one from a wide-ranging, first-class soundtrack from executive music producer T Bone Burnett and associate music director Marcus Mumford.
By signing on Burnett and Mumford to fine-tune the score, the Coens show their commitment to the quality of the music. The haunting and mournful opening and closing song, "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me" perfectly conveys the entire tone of the film.
That attention to detail extends to the characters they create, with the screenplay digging deep into the psyches of all involved, from the leads to the secondary characters.
John Goodman is scene-stealingly bizarre as the manipulative and not always lucid Roland Turner, who along with his macho driver Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund, channeling the Beat Generation better than ever), give Llewyn a ride he'll never forget. But the best performance comes from Isaac, who never allows Llewyn to lose his bitterness but manages to convey just enough humanity for us to care about him.
In supporting roles, Timberlake is ideal as the earnest singer with appealing looks. Mulligan satisfyingly abandons that waifish on-screen persona we associate with her to play the foul-mouthed Jean -- and she's all the better for it.
"Inside Llewyn Davis" is just as unexpected as Mulligan's furious rant of a performance. And that's part of what makes the Coen brothers' movies so enjoyable. You never know where these daredevils are heading -- they're originals through and through.
Who else would have the moxie to make a movie that not only deploys an elusive cat as a metaphor, but seasons it with "Ulysses" for some literary allusion, then makes its prickly protagonist an irascible singer?
Hang me, oh hang me, if these two don't continue to make such inspired films.
'Inside Llewyn Davis'
* * * *
Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver
Directors and screenwriters:
Joel and Ethan Coen
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes