I love the Coen brothers’ movies, so I figured I’d be in for an entertaining, if quirky, couple of hours at today’s Cinema Society screening. “Inside Llewyn Davis” was just that – entertaining and quirky – but also superbly acted and interwoven with the sort of ’60s coffee-house, pre-Dylan folk music that’s long vanished from the music scene.
Set in New York City in 1961, Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is a failed musician who’s sleeping on friends’ couches and wandering the streets and subways looking hapless in between the occasional gig. One friend (Justin Timberlake) is more successful and is married to a woman (Carey Mulligan) whom Llewyn may or may not have knocked up. Another friend is a professor at Columbia whose cat Llewyn mistakenly allows to escape its Upper West Side apartment. Llewyn is lost, emotionally detached from everything and everyone, except when he plays his guitar and sings and then he comes alive. The trouble is no one wants to hear him/pay him.
There’s a sequence involving a road trip with the always hilarious John Goodman, but this isn’t a particularly funny movie. It’s a character study of a man who strives for authenticity in his music and can’t find acceptance. I can’t say it was one of my favorite Coen Brothers films – it’s about a sad sack, after all, and the song lyrics are all gloom and doom – but the performances were uniformly great. In the Q&A after the screening with star Oscar Isaac and music producer T. Bone Burnett, we learned that all the singing was shot live – we’re talking about entire, three-minute songs, not snippets – and that Isaac had to learn real guitar picking for the role. Carey Mulligan, who seems to be able to pull off any sort of role that’s thrown at her, is utterly believable as a New York folkie (who knew she could sing).
Quite a few of my friends didn’t like the movie at all and while it’s true that the story doesn’t really go anywhere, as T. Bone Burnett pointed out, neither do folk songs. They start and end with the first verse, and so does “Inside Llewyn Davis.”