The latest character to be fed into the Coen brothers’ metaphorical wood chipper is a 1960s Greenwich Village folk singer. Yet their bleak, bittersweet comedy of frustration, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” is surprisingly empathetic toward its embattled title character. To a rare degree, the Coens encourage our emotional identification with Llewyn. He’s a gifted, pompous, sensitive, arrogant, sympathetic cad, played without a false note by Oscar Isaac.
Sure, Llewyn endures an avalanche of abuse, most of it self-inflicted. This flat-broke troubadour, whose disdain of “careerists” is tainted with an unsuccessful man’s envy, is a broken record about integrity. But you cannot watch the Coens’ rapt, uninterrupted takes of Isaac’s sublime musical interludes and not be moved. Onstage the antihero stops being his own worst enemy and creates fleeting beauty.
Offstage, Llewyn negotiates life like a man unicycling over banana peels. An obnoxious man. His occasional hostess, Jean (Carey Mulligan), romantic and singing partner of Jim (Justin Timberlake), is pregnant, and furiously lays the responsibility on Llewyn. She delivers a hilarious rant, calling him “King Midas’ idiot brother,” whose touch turns everything to garbage.
Llewyn’s hard-luck odyssey takes him to Chicago for an audition that could make his career. His escort is Roland Turner (the indispensable John Goodman). Uproariously bitter and pickled in hipper-than-thou smugness, Turner is a nightmare vision of the person Llewyn may become. A more realistic glimpse of Llewyn’s also-ran fate comes near the finale, when a nasal-voiced newcomer named Young Bob takes the spotlight and sings Dylan’s “Farewell.”
The more you know about the near-great folkie Dave Van Ronk, hotshot manager Albert Grossman and self-mythologizing Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, the more inside jokes you’ll catch, but no prior knowledge is required. The soundtrack is a sublime collection of sing-and-strum ballads, and the production design is flawless. If it weren’t for a single forced, cheap scatological gag, I’d call this the Coens’ most nearly perfect film.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” should retire the old charge that the Coens are misanthropes, who thrill at belittling humanity. Their character studies approach the imaginative richness of a novel. They know the paths of righteousness and egotism run parallel and can intersect often over the course of a life.
The film even has multiple endings, one of them at the beginning. Llewyn receives an alleyway drubbing from a mysterious figure twice, as if he’s running in circles on the hamster wheel of fate. His retort to the departing aggressor at the fadeout is a bloodied but unbowed “Au revoir.” He knows that in this life, the beat and the beatings go on. You’ve got to roll with the punches. The Dude abides. Llewyn perseveres.
Inside Llewyn Davis
⋆⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars