The Coen brothers are in fine form with Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), a brilliant portrait of a struggling folk singer (Oscar Isaac). It’s 1961 and Llewyn is trying to make a go of it as a solo artist after the death of his musical partner. He drags himself from bar to stage, cadging off friends and family and living between Greenwich Village, Queens and the Upper West Side. His first, eponymous solo album is not selling and the only gigs he can get are at the Gaslight café. To make matters worse, he’s got a female friend pregnant and has to pay for the abortion. Llewyn is part of a dedicated coterie of musicians, including duo Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan), who regularly play the Gaslight.
Desperate for money, an eager-to-please Llewyn agrees to a studio session with Jim and fellow folk singer Al Cody (Adam Driver). Here he ends up recording a throwaway novelty single called Please Mr. Kennedy that he clearly detests. Llewyn then decides to try his luck in Chicago and hitches a lift with another musician to audition for renowned club impresario Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). Isaac delivers a stunning performance. He perfectly captures Llewyn’s self-centeredness and arrogance – the carelessness with which he treats women, his expectation of a free couch for the night, the constant scrounging and his belittling of other musicians – without ever losing our sympathy. What’s more, the circularity of his life is beautifully evoked by the Coen brothers’ clever narrative framing.
Although the mood of Inside Llewyn Davis is predominantly melancholic, echoed in the film’s soundtrack and lyrics, there is also plenty of humour. This is largely down to a terrific array of characters, all with their own obsessions and flaws, and an hilarious sub-plot involving a ginger cat. As well as glorious cameos from Driver, Mulligan and Timberlake, other star turns include John Goodman as Roland Turner, an obnoxious jazz man permanently off his head, and an off-screen contribution from associate music producer, Marcus Mumford, who duets with Isaac on one number. What’s so poignant about Llewyn’s failure to hit the big time is that he’s not a bad musician. He’s evidently talented and obsessively committed to his art but is just not getting the breaks he needs. The surprise success of Please Mr. Kennedy adds insult to injury but just when we think nothing can save him, the appearance of a young Bob Dylan (Benjamin Pike), in the film’s closing moments, offers a glimmer of hope for Llewyn’s future career.
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