Call them quirky, offbeat or just plain strange, but Joel and Ethan Coen have always delighted in making films that are just slightly off-kilter. Their films are never so weird that they’re unable to find an audience, but save for a few notable examples, their films have never been part of the mainstream, either.
Their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, will likely remain under the radar as well, despite the presence of actors like Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake and John Goodman. That’s because it’s a meandering look at one week in the life of a fictional 1960s folk singer, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac).
Oscar Isaac’s face, covered in an appropriate beard, gives off a world-weariness that makes you want to give him a hug even when he says despicable things.
On his own following the death of his singing partner, Davis is forced to crash on the couches of various friends and acquaintances while scratching out a meager living singing in clubs.
Those friends include Jim (Timberlake) and Jean (Mulligan), fellow, more successful folk singers, and Mitch and Lillian Gorfein, older, well-to-do family friends.
Not much happens, but then, that’s kind of the point. The Coen Brothers revel in things going wrong for Llewyn, like his being forced to carry around the Gorfeins’ cat when it escapes or other musicians' getting more acclaim than he does for ineffable reasons. The world in this story is not necessarily out to get Llewyn, but it’s certainly not doing him any favors.
The music of the film, which got an assist from current folkster Marcus Mumford, helps to set the scene. However, moviegoers shouldn't go in expecting an O Brother, Where Art Thou?-style romp, as most of the songs are dour and depressing, befitting the life that Llewyn is living.
There are some laughs in the film, but they tend to come out of nowhere. Examples include Llewyn’s agent being continually clueless or pops of profanity, which litter the landscape of the film but never dominate it. The Coens have always known the art of a well-placed curse word, and this film is no exception.
Isaac is in every scene of the movie, and he’s more than up to the task of carrying the load. His face, covered in an appropriate beard, gives off a world-weariness that makes you want to give him a hug even when he says despicable things. And his mellifluous voice makes you wonder if Isaac could actually give this singing thing a shot.
Inside Llewyn Davis is not the most interesting or entertaining film the Coen brothers have ever made, but it has its own unique charms. If nothing else, it’s a breakout performance for Isaac, who should go on to bigger and better things.