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For a pair of artists who never had to compromise to find success, one might expect the Coen brothers to whiff a story about one who does. But what the title character goes through in Inside Llewyn Davis is painfully honest and utterly recognizable, offering one of their most vivid character studies yet. A mundane look at a week in the life of a folk musician that doubles as a meditation on the unpredictable alchemy of stardom, Inside Llewyn Davis is another triumph for the Coens that remarkably underscores how elusive great artistic achievements can be.
Oscar Isaac (Drive) plays Davis, a folk singer who can’t catch a break, professional or otherwise: Bouncing from one couch to another, Llewyn looks for work while shuffling a friend’s cat back and forth through the streets of New York’s Greenwich Village. Learning that he may have gotten his colleague Jim’s (Justin Timberlake) wife Jean (Carey Mulligan) pregnant, he scores a gig as a session player to earn money for an abortion. But when he learns that big-time producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) may be looking for new acts, Llewyn hitches a ride across the country with an eccentric jazz musician (John Goodman) and his mysterious driver (Garrett Hedlund) to audition in hopes of scoring a recording contract.
Even if stardom eludes Llewyn Davis, it should welcome Oscar Issac with open arms after his performance, which perfectly showcases the character’s skill as well as the many reasons that keep it from finding an audience. As possibly the only character who might still qualify as likeable, even after asking the husband of the woman he got pregnant for abortion money, Davis is a scruffy charmer, a guy whose pathological avoidance of following through on pretty much anything ends up being both a symptom and the result of his inability to get out of his own way.
The closest he ever seems to come to taking responsibility for himself is acknowledging an off-ramp where an ex-girlfriend might have settled down years ago with their child. But even when Mulligan is making a pretty strong case for Davis never procreating, “for the sake of all mankind,” Isaac makes us ever so slightly feel sorry for him, even as she hints at a well of pain – and genuine affection for him – beneath her consternation.
Although it focuses on a fictional character, Inside Llewyn Davis celebrates the unsung artists who paved the way for their more commercial successors, and generally examines the artistic quandaries musicians face en route to achieving the kind of career they want. In the film, Davis is dealing with the death of a former partner, and the pain and humanity that distinguishes his current output are the same qualities that keep it from being marketable; “I don’t hear any money,” Grossman tells him, and unknowingly encourages him to stage a reunion. Meanwhile, a dopey G.I. (Stark Sands) with a great backstory and a blandly appealing voice earns exactly the kind of contract Davis wants, underscoring the sad truth that what audiences want and what’s “good” are not always the same thing.
In basing Davis loosely on one of Bob Dylan’s forebears, Dave Van Ronk, the Coens open the door for what could have been a snapshot of that era as a whole, and their attention to period detail is thorough without being overstated. But their story has a specificity that studiously avoids making a larger cultural commentary, instead focusing on Davis’ personal and artistic subsistence, and finding a thematic rather than historic purpose for each scene. This isn’t a guy who’s aware of the great musical revolution he’s on the forefront of, or even trying to change the face of his medium; he’s simply doing what he’s doing because he can’t do anything else, even when it brings him misery.
Fans of O Brother, Where Art Thou will find much to like here, although that film’s translation of Homer’s “Odyssey” is decidedly more magical than the day-to-day pragmatism of Davis’ struggle. The two also share in common terrific soundtracks that seamlessly recreate the musical era in which they’re set. But the Coens demonstrate a restraint and a humanity that they haven’t shown since No Country For Old Men, depicting their protagonist’s behavior with unvarnished honesty, and yet genuine compassion. Ultimately, Inside Llewyn Davis itself exemplifies the kind of art that can only be made without compromise – avoiding cliché, showing empathy for unlikeability, and avoiding broader meanings in favor of more specific truths.
Inside Llewyn Davis opens today.