Must-See Movies Beyond the Blockbusters
Joel and Ethan Coen continue to surprise audiences with idiosyncratic and authentic movies — some that harmonize with a wider audience and, others, like “Inside Llewyn Davis,” a New York Film Festival selection, sneak in to sing to the choir. With the title taken from the sole solo album of a forgotten fictional folkie, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), this is a sweet and sour story of a failure. Call it a star-is-unborn story.
Set in 1961 in Greenwich Village, the film rips a wintry landscape from the album cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” – and then places Davis at its center without an overcoat, shivering in his thin shoes. Davis is the guy who could have been Dylan – but wasn’t. In the beat before the famed singer-songwriter takes center stage (a lookalike appears in a final scene), a broke and bewildered Davis tries to make one last stand for a career as a folk singer. He’s at the right place at the wrong time, at the very moment that the great folk revival shifted from curating traditional songs and lyrics to combining original lyrics and traditional melodies – and becoming the soundtrack for the social movements of the early sixties.
Recalling “A Mighty Wind,” but more oil painting than satiric sketch, the movie is ripe with supporting characters. Carey Mulligan sparks as Jean Berkey, one half of a comfy duo with Justin Timberlake’s Jim. Jean’s constantly angry at Llewyn, an attitude that taps the actress’s talent in a way that was missing from her languid Daisy in “The Great Gatsby.” Timberlake, all V-neck sweaters and sixties-square sweetness, is impeccable. If anything we want more of the duo, along with Coen regular John Goodman, who shows up for a doomed road-trip to Chicago carrying his own piss and vinegar.
The intense Isaac (“Drive,” “W.E.”) with puppy-dog eyes and a sweet singing voice gets a winning showcase for his talents. Isaac always appears entirely in the moment – no hint of irony, no wink to the present — connected to the other actors and his music with the earnest fervor of a committed folkie. The movie, like Davis’ career, never quite catches fire, but it plays a melody that stays with you long after the final credits.
Bottom Line: A successful study in folk failure from the Brothers Coen
Watch the trailer for “Inside Llewyn Davis”