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Review: Coen Brothers send cinematic love letter to artists with 'Davis'

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Given the blood and pathos that can often infiltrate a Coen Brothers movie, Inside Llewyn Davis seems like a sedate choice for the Oscar-winning tandem that writes and directs films. Then again maybe not. For every Fargo with its darkness, there is a lighter, albeit modestly so, The Big Lebowski.

But their follow-up to their remake of True Grit, finds them blending more than a hint of the darkness with heaping doses of irony leading to some fantastic comedic moments. It opens Friday (Dec. 20) in theaters.

Few filmmakers would consider the story of a 1960s-era folk singer fertile ground for comedy, but Llewyn Davis can be pure comedic gold – subtle, but biting and sharp, yet filled with humanity and an absolute understanding of the character.

Davis is a struggling folk singer toiling the clubs of Greenwich Village in New York City in 1961. Once part of a well-received folk duo, he’s out on his own now trying to eke out a living.

Home is where whoever allows him to flop on their couch and food is whatever he finds in their cupboards. He’s determined to make it – if not on talent then based on pure relentlessness.

Fate, however, has other ideas for the one-time merchant marine. It wants to throw every roadblock in his path to success.

That starts simply enough with a fan’s cat that escapes as he’s trying to leave their apartment after a night of sleep and he’s stuck with the finicky feline for the time being.

It includes everything one might expect from anyone who is struggling to make ends meet from their art. From family comes some derision. His sister thinks he should go back to the merchant marines.

Funny, the abuse also comes from colleagues, including Jean (Carey Mulligan) a singer and wife to Llewyn’s best friend Jim (Justin Timberlake). Jean may or may not be carrying Davis’ child and even if she is, there’s no way that anyone can afford to raise it. Therefore the struggling artist must come up with the cash to pay for an abortion.

Davis’ life is one long road trip into any artisan’s version of Hell, including a road trip to Chicago to further his career and where he eventually has to decide whether he wants to deal with reality.

Oscar Isaac brings the entire conundrum to the forefront with skill, likeability and a comedic sensibility that plays just right in the movie. Davis is alternately depressed, befuddled and tortured by his plight as he deals with numerous issues that inflict damage on his day-to-day life. He gives a nuanced portrayal of that Llewyn is exactly what most artists are – tortured souls.

Davis walks in and out of many people’s lives throughout the film, but the Coens create some memorable characters, most notably that of a couple of fans (Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett) who allow Davis to mooch off of them for the price of a dancing like a trained monkey for their guests. Needless to say, a guy’s got to sleep and eat somehow.

Give the Coens credit for assembling authentic songs that Isaac sings for the film as well. Timberlake even gets in on the act, penning a tune with the Coens and others called Please Mr. Kennedy that will like receive an Oscar nod. It’s one of many highlights in the film.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a wonderfully filmed, realistically created cinematic love letter to artists. It’s worth every minute it’s on screen.

Movie: Inside Llewyn Davis
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake
Studio: CBS Films
Rated: R for language including some sexual references
Running time: 105 minutes
George’s rating: 4.5-of-5 stars
Check for theaters and showtimes at Atlas Cinemas, Cleveland Cinemas, Fandango.com and MovieTickets.com

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