The Coen Brother's latest film is a lyrical, dreamlike ode to the beauty of failure, no matter how contradictory those terms may seem. It's a haunting evocation of the early 1960's Grenwich Village folk scene, and at the center of it is Llewyn Davis, a wannabe folk singer with loads of talent and even worse attitude. He's played by Oscar Isaac (known mostly for a bit part in Drive) in a fully lived in, incredibly natural performance, and the specific personal nature of the tale of one sad sack loser makes for one of the most beautiful and profound films of the year.
It's 1961 in New York City, at the very beginning of the burgeoning folk scene, and Llewyn is something of a lost soul, whose old partner killed himself and whose solo record is doing nothing on the charts. He spends his days drifting between different friends' couches, depending on who'll take him in, considering he's a bit of a shmuck who owes money to countless people and treats many of his so-called pals with a diffident attitude. The chip on his shoulder may well be earned, thanks to the dire circumstances he's stuck in, a constant loop of shit, as one of his friends, Jean calls it (a grumpy and hilarious Carey Mulligan). Show business is tough, and folk music hasn't quite taken off yet. But Llewyn is devoted to his artistry, and displays a terrific voice, as we get to hear in several scenes that show off Isaac's own, pretty decent set of pipes. The Coen's recreation of early 60's New York is drenched in sepia toned shading and smoke filled, dark and crowded bars, evocative of pictures and images you might have imagined those days to look like. Breaking with Roger Deakins for once, French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel brings a whole new look to the Coen's world, one that adds even more to the mystique of this particular time and place.
As Llewyn stumbles from one episodic incident to another he bumps into several quirkily written, familiar Coen characters, from John Goodman as an eccentric old time jazz player, to Justin Timberlake in a bit part as the "sell-out" folk singer who writes commercial space songs, and F. Murray Abraham in a crucial role as music producer Bud Grossman who tells Llewyn in the movie's most devastating scene, "I don't see a lot of money in this." This film would be something of a downer if not for the joyous uplift of the music, and as much as the story examines one specific case of somebody who couldn't make it work, it's just as much a love letter to the beauty of art itself, and the incredible devotion of artistically driven people to express themselves through what it is they love and strive to create. T-Bone Burnett collaborated with the Coens on the music for this film, as he did with the best-selling soundtrack for O Brother Where Art Thou? in 2000, and they've got another winner here.
This lovely, strange, beautiful and exquisitely made movie is one of the Coen's very best, in a long filmography that is now filled with one American masterpiece after another. It's a small jewel of a film, and one that you should seek out as soon as possible, for the performances, the music, the look and the feeling that will enrich your life for having seen it.