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Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” easily could have been about the parasitic, untrustworthy, unreliable, moderately talented screw-up at the heart of the Coen brothers’ enthralling Inside Llewyn Davis. Set in, but not comprehensively about, the Greenwich Village folk music scene circa 1961, this is a gorgeously made character study leavened with surrealistic dimensions both comic and dark, an unsparing look at a young man who, unlike some of his contemporaries, can’t transcend his abundant character flaws and remake himself as someone else. Closer to some of the Coens’ smaller films such as Barton Fink and A?Serious Man than to breakouts including O Brother, Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men, the French-financed CBS Films pickup nonetheless is a singular work by the protean filmmaking team.
Although played out to some extent in the clubs on Bleecker Street during a period that has acquired legendary status, the idiosyncratic original screenplay is far more concerned with the title character’s neuroses, aggravated lack of self-awareness and inability to turn his limitations to his artistic benefit. And while music permeates the film, viewers expecting a film a clef featuring lightly fictionalized versions of embryonic music all-stars will have to make an adjustment.
Like Bob Zimmerman, the Coen brothers were born and grew up in Minnesota and moved to New York City. Drawn to the milieu that attracted the musical poet but resisting the obvious temptation to make a film about him, the Coens have created a fictional character who could be said to be the guy who did not become Dylan but could have — save for some crucial talent and character issues. These are amusingly but more often cringingly illustrated in the course of the film, a strange odyssey that continually keeps you off balance as it darts and careens down assorted desolate streets and dark alleys of the human condition.
One’s natural instinct to be drawn to a story’s leading character is dashed here in a manner so merciless as to push into darkly comic sadism. A gorgeous opening scene at the Gaslight Cafe, where Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) sings a bleak song about being hanged, abruptly is followed by Llewyn getting the crap beaten out of him for reasons the singer doesn’t understand.
Still, no amount of personal misfortune can explain or justify why the 30ish Llewyn, whose good looks are undercut by a general dumpiness, treats his friends so shabbily. A running motif is his constant need for a place to crash; an unabashed starving-artist type, Llewyn bounces around between the apartment of Columbia scholars the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips, Robin Barrett); a room at the home of his resentful sister (Jeanine Serralles); a sofa at the Village pad of singer Jean (Carey Mulligan), who’s furious at him and is going with her musical partner Jim (Justin Timberlake); and any other likely suspect, such as singer Al Cody (Adam Driver), a big-city Jew affecting a cowboy persona.
Explicitly presented but not discussed, the Jewish involvement in the music scene is highlighted in a way that cannot be ignored and constantly echoes the satirical tone of the brothers’ splendid A?Serious Man, which also centered on a man who gets little other than bad news. The worst comes from Jean, who justifiably shrieks at him for the carelessness that got her pregnant (she actually isn’t sure who the culprit is) and demands he arrange an illegal abortion for her. Not even a cat is safe in Llewyn’s care; asked by the Gorfeins to tend to their tabby, the schmuck lets him escape, prompting some agonizing chases through town involving outstanding direction of a feline.
But the work’s core and most brilliant filmmaking, as stunning and singular as anything in the Coens’ canon, is embodied in what initially feels like a tangent that, among other things, can be viewed as a deadpan satire on the whole “on the road” ethos of the period, right down to the casting of Dean Moriarty himself, Garrett Hedlund, as the mostly mute driver on a hitchhiking trip Llewyn makes to Chicago. With John Goodman’s sarcastic raconteur Roland Turner splayed across the back seat like a malignant combination of Henry VIII and Orson Welles in Touch of Evil, the trip proceeds into a surrealistic twilight zone. Although not decisive, the trip does present the artist with a defining moment the viewer is free to ignore or accept as the truth about what’s “inside” Llewyn Davis.
Visually, the Coens get along fine, thank you, without their habitual cinematographer Roger Deakins, as Bruno Delbonnel creates a succession of lustrous images. The Coens and their executive music producer T?Bone Burnett have dug deep to create a fresh, resonant folk soundtrack.
Faced with playing a man one would learn to steer clear of in real life, Isaac deftly manages the task of making Llewyn compulsively watchable. The one question some might be left with is, why are we watching the story of a loser instead of a winner? But part of the point is that often there’s but a hair’s-breadth difference between the two.
Debuts: Cannes Film Festival (in competition)
Opens: Autumn 2013 (CBS Films)
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Ethan Phillips, Robin Barrett, Max Cassella, Jerry Grayson, Jeanine Serralles, Adam Driver, Stark Sands, Alex Karposvky, F. Murray Abraham
Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Screenwriters: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Producers: Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Executive producers: Robert Graf, Olivier Courson, Ron Halperin
Director of photography: Bruno Delbonnel
Production designer: Jess Gonchor
Costume designer: Mary Zophres
Editor: Roderick James
Executive music producer: T Bone Burnett
R rating, 105 minutes
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