After an excursion to the Wild West with their remake of True Grit, the Coen brothers are now back on familiar territory. They might not have made a movie about the New York folk scene of the early 1960s before but, thanks to its wry comedy, offbeat characters and philosophical underpinning, Inside Llewyn Davis feels very much like classic Coen brothers.
Inspired in part by a book, The Mayor of MacDougall Street by the influential, little-known folk artist Dave van Ronk, the film follows a few days of the life of the titular character, a musician attempting to succeed as a solo artist after the death of his bandmate.
We see Llewyn, who is played with deadpan panache by Oscar Isaac, taking to the stage at the Gaslight Cafe, getting into fights (both physical and verbal) and hawking around for places to stay. Further plot machinations involve him trying to deal with the news that he may have impregnated his feisty friend Jean (Carey Mulligan) and heading out on a road trip to Chicago for an audition.
There are many fine comic moments of the kind the Coens have perfected over the years in films as rich as A Serious Man, Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski. There’s an extended joke that sees Llewyn having to cart a cat around New York, and a brilliant scene in which he plays as a session musician on a ridiculous novelty record called “Please, Mr President”. There are some wonderful cameos too, with Coens’ regular John Goodman popping up as a drug-addled jazzman and Jerry Grayson and Sylvia Kaulders as Llewyn’s disorganised management team.
For all of the film’s comedy, Llewyn himself is not an easy character to warm to: he’s vain and regularly obnoxious. Yet we are kept on his side by not only witnessing his haplessness, but also by seeing him perform. He gives a heartbreaking rendition of “The Death of Queen Jane”, though somehow F Murray Abraham’s inscrutable club owner remains unmoved.
Llewyn is good, but not good enough. In the face of this rejection, the film, with its tricksy circular structure, finds sympathy for him and his kind: talented people who will never achieve their dreams but won’t stop trying anyway.
It would, of course, be impossible to make a film of this era without referencing Bob Dylan somewhere. Superficially, Dylan is there in Llewyn. Isaac is no lookalike, but thanks to his dark features, he might reasonably be described as Dylanesque. Then there’s the Welshness of his character’s name, which surely points to Robert Zimmerman’s stage moniker and its allusion to Dylan Thomas.
Llewyn, though, is not Dylan and in an ingenious shot close to the end the Coens give us a glimpse of the great man himself. I won’t spoil it by explaining more, but what I will say is that it’s a flash that provides a bittersweet coda. Llewyn and the many like him might be destined to live a Sisyphean life of struggle, but occasionally rare genius will appear, capable of breaking out and transcending its time.
For some bizarre reason, Inside Llewyn Davis has been ignored by this year’s Oscars. The nominations were announced last week and I’m sorry to say the movie only picked up nods in a handful of token categories. A snub to such a fine film is a disappointment, but in a way, perhaps, it makes a kind of poetic sense. As an artist, Llewyn is overlooked and underappreciated. Now the Coen brothers have been given a taste of how that feels, too.