Upon first glance, Inside Llewyn Davis seems like an outlier, even for the wildly unpredictable Coen Brothers who bounce from genre to genre with an unnatural ease. Set in 1961 in the heart of the Greenwich Village folk music scene, a fact which will probably keep the crowds away in droves regardless of any critical praise, the film focuses on the titular musician (Oscar Isaac) as he wanders his way through a career and life unfulfilled. Unfulfilled largely due to his own issues, both personal and professional, this puts him on equal footing with other Coen protagonists such as in A Serious Man, Barton Fink, and The Big Lebowski.
There's also something deeply personal the Coens seem to be trying to say, about the improbability of finding success as an entertainer while holding on to one's integrity. No doubt it's something they contended with back in their early days, not so much anymore, and now this is them reflecting on that period of uncertainty a little bit. Llewyn is a talented guy, a musician both in love with his craft but in contempt of the business. Or lack of business in his case, as he's basically penniless and bouncing from one friend's couch to the next for a bite to eat and a quick sleep. He was successful once as part of a duo, until his partner threw himself off a bridge. His new album isn't selling, he's stuck playing in the same cheap cafe a few nights a week basically as a favor, and he can't even take care of a friend's cat without screwing that up.
Speaking of screwing up, there's also the issue of the perpetually-frowning Jean (Carey Mulligan), the wife of his best friend Jim (Justin Timberlake). She never seems happy when Llewyn is around and for very good reason: she's pregnant, and the child is possibly his. "Everything you touch turns to shit. Like King Midas’ idiot brother.” she scolds him, one of many times she'll rip him a new one. He's concerned, but not really, he really just needs to get a winter coat before the cold snap. For every new door that opens, such as a recording gig with Jim, another door seems to slam shut in his face, literally in one case.
Inside Llewyn Davis has the barest plot of any Coen Brothers film, and that's really saying something. It meanders along aimlessly, much like Llewyn himself, and we can't help but become enamored with his daily grind. The film starts off hysterical as Llewyn bumbles from one ridiculous thing after another, always puzzled over how things keep going south. While he's well-meaning enough, he's totally self-centered and seemingly unaware of it despite others (mainly Jean) making it obvious. What he's got is passion and ability, but not that extra something that pushes others into superstardom. 1961 was an important year for folk music, as it was a time just before Bob Dylan and others would arrive and revolutionize the sound in a way Llewyn wouldn't understand until it was too late.
For that matter there's a sense of inevitable failure that permeates the film, bleak even by Coen standards, and the whole thing turns into one long dour affair, just as Llewyn hitches a ride to Chicago to plead a club manager for a gig. Along for the ride is Coen Brothers favorite John Goodman as a cantankerous jazz man, and Garrett Hedlund as his hip, silent valet. It's an odd interlude, their journey, too far off the beaten path to connect with Llewyn's story and yet not witty enough to maintain interest.
What makes the film work as much as it does are two things: Oscar Isaac and the soulful soundtrack, with the two forming a near perfect synthesis of sight and sound. He captures Llewyn's passion and desperation in equal measure, especially in the film's melancholic opening track, "Hang Me Oh Hang Me". More peppy tunes occasionally break up the Coens' brooding and add some much needed humor, such as the central song "Dear Mr. Kennedy", a rollicking anti-war number featuring a hilarious, booming turn by Adam Driver. It's the fourth time the Coens and T. Bone Burnett have collaborated musically and each time gets better than the last.
The film comes full circle in a way the Coens probably thought was clever but is a confusing distraction. Even upon a second and then a third viewing it never seems to serve any real narrative purpose. In truth, it took me those multiple times watching the film to appreciate what the Coens are trying to do. Inside Llewyn Davis celebrates those entertainers who strove for something greater but were destined to become footnotes in history.