The Coen Brothers are exceptional among American filmmakers for having had a long and prosperous career without ever significantly watering down or altering their sensibility along the way. You could draw a line from their indie debut “Blood Simple” through to Oscar-winners “Fargo” and “No Country For Old Men” and clearly detect the same hands at work.
Their latest, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” follows a struggling folk musician in pre-Dylan-era early 1960s Greenwich Village, New York City. Like so many films by the Coen Brothers it depicts a universe where the guiding principle seems to be Murphy’s Law. (Played for laughs this time, like “The Big Lebowski” or “A Simple Man,” rather than the darker excursions of “Miller’s Crossing” or “No Country.”)
Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) is an aspiring, moody folk singer who clearly has some real talent, but also seems to have a knack for shooting himself in the foot.
The film starts with Llewyn getting punched out for having heckled another singer, and things don’t get much better from there: He’s broke, sleeping on friends’ couches, dealing with a pregnant lover (who happens to be a friend’s wife) and desperate for any sort of paying gig, yet his sarcastic, saturnine attitude and pride make things consistently worse. About the only thing he seems determined to sort out is finding a lost cat that he let out of a friend’s pad by mistake.
Llewyn’s escalating screw-ups give the film plenty of laughs, but the Coens also find some humor in the period they are depicting, whether it’s the overly earnest songs of folk duo Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carrie Mulligan) or the completely dopey novelty tunes his friends are cranking out as radio hits. John Goodman also turns up as some sort of unholy cross between Orson Welles and William Burroughs, and harangues Llewyn on a car trip all the way from New York City to Chicago.
Critics always go on about how “cruel” the Coens are toward their characters, and how coolly they seem to snicker at their foibles. Many have viewed “Inside Llewyn Davis” as more of the same. That’s debatable: While the film is clearly using black humor, it also seems incredibly on the mark — many musicians would not be laughing at Llewyn’s struggles to find a couch to crash on, or his lack of a warm jacket in the dead of winter. (Itself an echo from the cover photo of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.”)
What the film does do is contrast the hope and idealism of the folk-music scene with the cynicism that comes from believing in your art but not finding an audience for it. The choice of selling out versus holding on to one’s artistic integrity — to the point of calling it quits — is starkly illuminated. While the Coens themselves have succeeded on their own terms, this film seems to show how well they recognize that it’s luck and timing, as much as anything else, that makes a career.