In the early 1960s, many of the now-iconic folk singers earned their followings and made reputations in the smoky, cramped clubs in New York’s Greenwich Village. This is where you could hear Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, or Joni Mitchell, and be close enough to see the spittle on their lips. As history usually works, we only know the stories of the victors, and in this case, the Dylans and the Mitchells are who we imagine on those tiny stages as we sing along with their records. The failures, however, failed to become history and their voices, songs, and struggles have been swept into the sewers of memory. Some of them were just as deserving but for some reason didn’t connect with a massive audience or a smart record label. Or they just didn’t have the right personalities; narcissists, jerks, depressives drunks, all of the above. The Coen Brothers, among America’s great artists who have managed to embed themselves in history, have imagined one of those Greenwich Village figures who didn’t.
In the winter of 1961, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is sleeping on the couches of the friends who aren’t angry with him, reeling from the suicide of his former singing partner and a furtive affair with his married friend Jean (Carey Mulligan). His solo album, titled Inside Llewyn Davis, is not selling at all, and his gigs aren’t paying. And then Jean tells Oscar that she’s pregnant and doesn’t know if it’s his or her husband Jim’s (Justin Timberlake), so she has to get an abortion. Oscar sets off the find the money for the procedure while also trying to get his career going, and this leads him to session work, wandering through the cold streets of Manhattan, and in a car on the way to snowy Chicago with hobbled, caustic jazz musician Roland Tuner (John Goodman) and his greaser valet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund). Throughout, Oscar carries, loses, and chases an orange tabby cat.
While this does sound like a lot of plot, the Coens don’t much believe in the traditional, tried-and-true structure of stories. Stuff happens, scenes move with drama and humor, but people don’t change in the movies they write.(Their adaptations, like No Country for Old Men and True Grit are different. About Inside Llewyn Davis’s lack of plot, Joel Coen said, “That concerned us at one point; that’s why we threw the cat in.” The cat doesn’t help, because it seems so symbolic that I kept trying to figure what it was symbolic of – and I never did.
But we are privy both to lines and images that get stuck in your head, and Inside Llewyn Davis has many: Oscar Isaacs holding the cat on the subway as it stares at the stations going by to Isaacs shuffling through the snow outside a Chicago bus station, from one of his hosts screaming at him about testicles to Cary Mulligan’s swearing tirades, from Adam Driver’s hilarious baritone noises on a song called “Please Mr. Kennedy” to John Goodman’s monologues, which are among the best the Coens have ever written. And the songs, produced by T. Bone Burnett and Marcus Momford, are wonderful, gorgeous and moving when they’re supposed to be, dated and silly when they’re supposed to be.
As is usual with the Coens, each performance is strong and idiosyncratic. After a decade of working mostly under the radar, Oscar Isaacs will now be recognized as a leading man; his Llewyn is funny, crass, desperate, and musically moving, if not terribly likeable. Mulligan’s role is small but loud and snide, and she’s great fun. Timberlake has little to do, but his naïve sweetness is a great counterpoint to Isaacs. Goodman’s barely alive Falstaffian monster is the best part of the movie, and I hope he is not forgotten at Oscar time. The film itself will be nominated for many, but as good as it is, Inside Llewyn Davis may end up lost in the stack of their better films. Not forgotten, but not iconic either.
Inside Llewyn Davis
Written and Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, and John Goodman
Opens in San Diego December 20