DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
Brother Joel and Ethan Coen continue to mine American pop culture in their new movie, "Inside Llewyn Davis." The time is 1961; the place, New York's Greenwich Village. The title character is a homeless folk singer trying desperately to break out. He's played by Oscar Isaac. The film features, among many others, Justin Timberlake. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The films of Joel and Ethan Coen pose a challenge: How do we reconcile their wildly disparate tones? Consider "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" a burlesque of Homer's "Odyssey" centering on three stumblebums - but with a soundtrack - assembled by T Bone Burnett - of heartfelt, historical gospel and country music. Ditto "The Ladykillers": venal idiot characters, soaring African-American spirituals. The ridiculous and the sublime sit side by side, with no spillover.
Now comes "Inside Llewyn Davis." It's a beautifully crafted tale of woe, set in the early '60s folkie world of Greenwich Village, pre-Bob Dylan. Much of the music - again, the soundtrack is produced by T Bone Burnett - is gorgeous and deeply felt. The milieu of folk clubs and coffee houses is lovingly evoked. But the overarching tone is snotty, condescending, cruel.
The title character, played by Oscar Isaac, is a man of deep contrasts. He's a jerk who uses other people, and the Coens throw misfortunes his way. They're positively fiendish. We watch his money run out and options shrink; and though we wait for something better, as in a standard rags-to-riches showbiz tale, it seems as if each anvil dropping on his head is heavier than the last. But when he hunches over his guitar and sings standards like "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me" and "The Death of Queen Jane," the film enters a more exquisite sphere.
"Inside Llewyn Davis" is partly inspired by the life of the late Dave Van Ronk, who was terminally overshadowed - if you believe conventional wisdom - by his quasi-protege, Dylan.Oscar Isaac bears little physical or vocal resemblance to Van Ronk. But he, too, pulls stints in the Merchant Marine to keep his music career afloat, and he also bums a ride to Chicago to audition for a famous club owner and manager - in life, Albert Grossman; here, called Bud Grossman, and played by a dour F. Murray Abraham.
Llewyn's current manager, Mel, is ancient and disorganized. And the Coens prolong Llewyn's humiliation in a scene with Jerry Grayson as Mel, and Jeanine Serralles as Mel's secretary.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS")
JERRY GRAYSON: (As Mel) How we doing?
OSCAR ISAAC: (As Llewyn) We're doing great.
GRAYSON: (As Mel) Really? New record's doing well?
ISAAC: (As Llewyn) How we doing?
GRAYSON: (As Mel) Not so hot. I gotta be honest. Jenny, where's Cincinnati?
JEANINE SERRALLES: (As Jenny) What?
GRAYSON: (As Mel) Cincinnati. It's not in here.
SERRALLES: (As Jenny) It should be in there.
GRAYSON: (As Mel) It's not in here, I'm telling you. Is it...
SERRALLES: (As Jenny) Cincinnati?
GRAYSON: (As Mel) Yeah.
SERRALLES: (As Jenny) I got it.
GRAYSON: (As Mel) What?
SERRALLES: (As Jenny) I got it.
GRAYSON: (As Mel) You got Cincinnati?
SERRALLES: (As Jenny) Yeah. You want it?
GRAYSON: (As Mel) Could I have it?
SERRALLES: (As Jenny) Should I bring it in?
GRAYSON: (As Mel) Yeah.
ISAAC: (As Llewyn) You owe me something? You have to owe me something.
GRAYSON: (As Mel) I wish. People need time - you know, get to know you, buy you as a solo act even though you're a solo act. Cincinnati is not good.
SERRALLES: (As Jenny) That's it, right?
GRAYSON: (As Mel) Yeah, this is it. God help us.
ISAAC: (As Llewyn) Nobody knew us when we were a duo. It's not like me and Mike were ever a big act. It's not a big re-education for the public. Mel? Mel!
GRAYSON: (As Mel) How you doing, kid?
EDELSTEIN: The shtick in that scene feels too easy to me, though the Coens do better elsewhere. There's a running joke with a cat that Llewyn keeps losing and finding; which leads to a two-pronged punchline: one part tragic, the other absurdly happy. The Coens worship movie fodder, archetypal faces that really read, or freaky ones that make you laugh out loud.
A peppy little professor - played by Ethan Phillips - adopts Llewyn as a sort of bohemian pet. John Goodman shows up briefly as a foul-mouthed junkie musician pickled in his own bile. The homeless Llewyn crashes on the sofa of a folk duo known as Jim and Jean, played by the radiantly ingenuous Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan. Onstage, Timberlake's tenor meshes perfectly with Mulligan's earth-mother tones, and she's lit like an angel - though offstage, all she does is scold Llewyn for being a creep.
For all its surface delights, "Inside Llewyn Davis" is thin. Those disparate tones - the mocking and the transcendent - can't be reconciled because they're meant to be irreconcilable. Once the music stops, petty humans are back in the muck. It's a sour worldview, and unearned. Only the Coens could turn that stirring, early-'60s era that helped give birth to the best part of the counterculture into a sick joke.
I have no doubts about Oscar Isaac, though. With his thick, unruly hair and beard, he evokes two countercultural touchstones: Lenny Bruce, and Al Pacino in "Serpico." He makes Llewyn a jerk of stature, chafing at his fate but always getting that sick joke that is his life. Musically, Isaac doesn't hit every note dead on, but his singing feels richer than performers with better pipes. He gives the Coens' vision more fullness than it deserves.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.