Writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen possess a special gift for conjuring a specific place and time. They depicted the deep South in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, great white North in “Fargo” and wild West in “True Grit.”
“Inside Llewyn Davis” visits Greenwich Village, 1961. It’s cold in New York City, like the deep and dark December in Simon and Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock” and winter’s day in the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’.”
A dark musical comedy playing at The Theaters at Canal Place, “Inside Llewyn Davis” trails failing folk singer Llewyn Davis as he sings at the Gaslight Café, sleeps on liberal academics’ couches and carps about no royalties for an album that probably sold a dozen copies or less.
The Coens either researched the music business or knew enough already to make “Inside Llewyn Davis” a smart movie about it.
This milieu of singer-songwriters, clubs, record companies, studios and managers includes a deliciously thoughtless business decision by Davis, a blunder of the kind many recording artists certainly made.
Oscar Isaac plays and sings the film’s title role. Armed with a folk-singer beard and a guitar, the character sings beautiful interpretations of traditional folk material.
But something is missing. As emotionally true and technically skilled as Davis is on stage, offstage he’s a lousy human being. Isaac projects the emptiness in Davis.
He’s a heartless blank whose few distinguishing characteristics consist of professional ambition and indifference to the well-being of others.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is so clever, seductive and dryly amusing that it doesn’t matter that the movie’s principal character is a borderline sociopath. That’s the Coen brothers’ masterful touch.
Davis’ circle includes his married folk-singing friends Jim and Jean Berkey. Justin Timberlake, a superstar in the real world of contemporary music, plays Jim, an open-hearted young man who has no idea what a skunk Davis is. Jean, on other hand, has Davis’ number.
As Jean, Carey Mulligan gets the angriest role of her career.
The Coens devote an entire sequence of the film to one of their favorite actors, John Goodman. They create the mythic Roland Turner for Goodman, a jazz musician modeled after the late songwriter and Dr. John collaborator, Doc Pomus.
After Davis accepts a surrealistic ride to Chicago from Turner, the jazz artist riffs insults at the folk singer as they drive through snowy landscapes. “In jazz,” he says, “we play all the notes. Not three chords on a ukulele.”
The movie’s deep casting extends to a so-right cameo appearance by Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham in the role of Chicago music power Bud Grossman.
The Coens based Grossman on Albert Grossman, manager of Peter, Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan. Never mind the passion and authenticity that folk music supposedly expresses, Abraham’s Grossman is no patron of the arts.
“Inside Llewyn Davis,” even with its comic undertones, reflects the hopelessness of especially bleak Coens films “A Serious Man” and “No Country for Old Men.” The story’s futility and its unlikable protagonist suggests it’s a movie only Coen brothers fans can embrace. Be that as it may, it’s a great example of their cinematic art.