“Inside Llewyn Davis” is a ramblin’ kind of movie with several things to commend it. The ramblin’ is a problem, though.
The Coen brothers, co-writing and -directing once again, have set their story in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s — specifically the winter of 1961, just before a newly arrived Bob Dylan rose up to rock that small world and soon the bigger world beyond it. The movie is selectively drawn from “The Mayor of MacDougal Street,” a 2005 memoir by the late Village folk singer Dave Van Ronk (one of Dylan’s early mentors). Oscar Isaac, who plays the fictitious Llewyn Davis, doesn’t much resemble Van Ronk — a bear of a man with bluesy inclinations. But Isaac’s sweeter voice has its own appeal, as does his unadorned fingerpicking guitar style. (Major props to the Coens for having their actors strum and sing live on set and for letting key songs play out from beginning to end, uncut.)
More problematically, where Van Ronk was admired in the Village folk world for both his musicianship and his proud-lefty politics, the apolitical Llewyn is a whiny pain, coldly self-absorbed and indifferent to everyone around him. As the movie follows him from one anecdotal incident to another and we get to know him better and better, we like him less and less.
He is introduced onstage at the Gaslight Cafe (a folkie “basket house” of the period), with a single spotlight filtering through the smoky haze as he delivers a delicate rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” (a Van Ronk staple). Then the ramblin’ begins. Essentially homeless, Llewyn expends much time in finding places to crash each night. At the Upper West Side home of a dippy professor (Ethan Phillips) who prizes him as dinner party entertainment, he accidently acquires a cat, of which we proceed to see way too much throughout the film. Then he heads back down to the Village to cadge some sofa time with Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan), a folk duo more successful than Llewyn, who’s unencumbered by star power. (His recent solo album has sold maybe two copies.)
Jean is not at all happy to see him; she’s pregnant, and Llewyn may — or may not — be the father. Jim is a stalwart pal, though, and he brings Llewyn in as a sideman on a recording session overseen by a producer (Ian Jarvis) who clearly represents Columbia executive John Hammond — the man who would soon be signing Dylan to the label. Also in attendance is Al Cody (Adam Driver), another local folkie, and together these three actors provide the movie’s most delightful scene. The song they’re cutting — “Please Mr. Kennedy” — is an uproarious rewrite of an old Goldcoast Singers tune. In the film, it’s a transparent attempt at a novelty hit; in the here and now, it’s actually a winner.
As the story rambles on, Llewyn catches a ride to Chicago with an abrasive trad-jazz musician, named Roland Turner (John Goodman), who is bitterly contemptuous of the surging folk-music wave that’s swamping his own scene. At the wheel is Roland’s cooled-out “valet,” an “On the Road”-type figure named Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund, who played Neal Cassady in the recent film version of the Jack Kerouac novel). Arriving in Chicago after considerable narrative meandering, Llewyn makes his way to the Gate of Horn, a folk music shrine, to beg a booking from the club’s dead-eyed owner, Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham, standing in for the real-life Albert Grossman, who later became Dylan’s manager). Grossman is unimpressed by an impromptu performance (“I don’t see a lot of money here”) but offers Llewyn a place in a frankly commercial folk trio he’s putting together. (Albert was the man who assembled Peter, Paul and Mary.) Llewyn, characteristically, rebuffs the offer.
Scene by scene, the movie is sleekly constructed and evocatively shot; the snowy Village streets quickly call to mind the famous cover photo on “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” And the actors are unusually fine. Mulligan, a prize sourball, is cuttingly funny, and Timberlake makes you miss him in every scene he’s not in. The picture is subtly layered with period referents (there’s even an allusion to the once-notorious Living Theatre), and the musical interludes, produced by T Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford, have a shimmering sonic purity.
But as admirable as the movie is in its parts, it doesn’t add up to much as a whole. We’re presumably meant to identify with Llewyn’s struggle to break through to stardom; but he’s not hugely talented, and we can easily see why he’s failing. The circular plot is too clever for the movie’s own good, and it ends in a tiny joke that deflates much of what’s come before it. The film is an affectionate tribute to a resonant cultural moment, but as Coen brothers movies go, it’s kind of minor.
One note: Most of the music in this picture (and a lot more besides) was showcased in a September benefit concert at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. Mulligan, Driver, Burnett and Mumford were among the many performers (Timberlake was unavailable), alongside Jack White, Elvis Costello, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, a duetting Joan Baez and Patti Smith(!), and the incomparable Punch Brothers. It was a spectacular night of acoustic music, and it was filmed for a Showtime special that will be airing Dec. 13. Highly recommended.