A Cat and a Song 

The Coen Brothers' take on the '60s folk scene looks and sounds great

The 1961 Greenwich Village folk music scene is the rich setting for the latest Coen brothers triumph, the brilliant Inside Llewyn Davis. Featuring a knockout performance from Oscar Isaac as the title character, and the usual top-notch writing and directing from brothers Joel and Ethan, it's easily one of the year's best films.

The movie, loosely based on the life of late folk singer Dave Van Ronk, opens with a profile shot of Llewyn singing his heart out on the traditional track, "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me." (Isaac does all of his own singing and guitar playing, and he does it well.) Shortly after completing his performance, his ass gets royally kicked behind the Gaslight Cafe, and the saga has begun.

Slightly sour, brooding and acerbic, the talented Llewyn is going through some hard times. He's lost his singing partner, his new solo album isn't catching on and he doesn't have a place to live. He surfs couches, one of them belonging to the married Jean (Carey Mulligan), who might be carrying his baby.

Llewyn tries to relax at times, perhaps even attempts to smile and enjoy life. That's not going to work for him, at least not in the timespan this movie covers. If he stops to happily address a cat, it escapes out a window. If he tries to lovingly play a tune for his aging father, the dude craps his pants. The universe seems to be requiring Llewyn to remain steadfast through the snarky retorts.

Through all his misery, Llewyn tries to make it as a musician. He performs studio duties on a novelty track called "Please Mr. Kennedy" with Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Al Cody (Adam Driver), eschewing royalties for a quick session paycheck. The performance of this song, with Driver employing some strange "Big Bopper" like vocal styling, is a total hoot.

On a whim, Llewyn travels to Chicago and forces an audition with the infamous agent, Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). The Bud Grossman audition scene is the total antithesis of the joyous and funny "Please Mr. Kennedy" sequence. Let's just say it's a terribly honest nod to the music industry.

The cross-country trek allows for some quality time with Garret Hedlund's stoic, cigarette hoarding driver, and John Goodman's pretentiously cruel jazz musician. Goodman, who has a nice Coen pedigree, is a hilarious mess as Roland Turner, a blathering back-seat passenger with an opinion about everything and nefarious bathroom secrets. His presence is priceless.

Seeing Isaac and Mulligan together reminds of their previous work together in Drive (Isaac played Mulligan's troubled husband). They are total magic on screen, with Mulligan showing an impressive aptitude for justifiable rage. She's very funny, and just a little scary.

Joining Llewyn on most of his journeys are numerous orange tabby cats that do felines proud. Their presence equates to one of those great, eccentric Coen touches. A sequence where a Llewyn friend screams about a cat's gender is quite memorable, and beautifully strange. Llewyn's moment closing a car door on that same cat will break your heart. I'm allergic to cats, but I want an orange one after seeing this movie.

The music is produced by T Bone Burnett, who also worked with the Coens on O Brother, Where Art Thou? In casting musically talented performers like Isaac, Timberlake, and Stark Sands as a folk-singing soldier, the Coens have given their film an authenticity that couldn't be achieved with lip-synching (although, it must be said that George Clooney did some badass lip-synching in O Brother).

Isaac, who has some musical background, smokes his musical moments. He totally inhabits the character in a way that leaves you thinking he's been a folk singer most of his adult life, but such is not the case. He knew how to play and sing a bit, but folk wasn't his forte. Mentor Burnett managed to whip him into fine folk shape.

Hard-core Coen brother fans fretting the absence of usual cinematographer Roger Deakins (he was unavailable for this film due to his Skyfall involvement) can relax. Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie) is a more than sufficient stand-in. The movie is shot in pleasant, washed-out colors, giving it the appearance of an old, favorite album cover gently fading. Every shot looks beautiful.

Inside Llewyn Davis is an authentic look at the pre-Dylan folk music scene, and it gets high marks for its dedication to the music. It sounds great across the board.

It's also an uncompromisingly honest character study of a disagreeable sort with a wounded soul. It's going to take a while for Llewyn to be happy. He has some serious shit to sort out before he starts cracking smiles and slapping backs before and after gigs down at the Gaslight.

Inside Llewyn Davis
Rated R · 104 minutes · 2013
Official Site: insidellewyndavis.com/us/splash
Director: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Producer: Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Robert Graf, Olivier Courson and Ron Halpern
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, F. Abraham, Justin Timberlake, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett, Max Casella, Jerry Grayson, Jeanine Serralles, Adam Driver, Stark Sands and Alex Karpovsky


More by Bob Grimm


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What others are saying (13)

Charleston City Paper Inside Llewyn Davis uses its music — and its characters — to explore grief and mourning Like many Coen brothers' films, this one is a kind of odyssey — and a more literally Homeric one than anything outside of O Brother, Where Art Thou? by Scott Renshaw 01/08/2014
Colorado Springs Independent The Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis nails the tone of a proper period piece Oscar Isaac turns in a breakout performance. by Daniel Barnes 12/18/2013
The Coast Halifax Inside Llewyn Davis Surprise! He's a folk dick. by Tara Thorne 12/26/2013
10 more reviews...
Inlander Folk it Up The Coen Brothers strike again with Inside Llewyn Davis by Ed Symkus 12/19/2013
Memphis Flyer Inside Llewyn Davis by Chris Davis 12/19/2013
New Times San Luis Obispo Review: Inside Llewyn Davis Ken Korman says the Coen brothers' latest deserves every accolade it's gotten, and then some by Ken Korman 12/23/2013
Arkansas Times Song cycle with a sad sack Coens' latest is a gem. by Sam Eifling 01/09/2014
Chicago Reader The Coen brothers grow up The Coen brothers grow up with Inside Llewyn Davis. by J.R. Jones 12/18/2013
Connect Savannah Review: Inside Llewyn Davis In the best film of 2013, Oscar Isaac plays a folksinger in 1961 New York who's just waiting for that big break. by Matt Brunson 01/08/2014
Colorado Springs Independent Counting down 2013's 15 finest films Some of these never played in local theaters, so you'll need to fill out your Netflix queue. by Scott Renshaw 01/01/2014
Style Weekly Tangled Up in Blues Movie Review: "Inside Llewyn Davis" looks at the sharp, cold divide between talent and genius. by Nicholas Emme 12/10/2013

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