December 15, 2013
Joel and Ethan Coen have done it again, creating yet another period masterpiece centered around the popular folk music scene in the early 1960's. Infused with memorable fictional characters (some of whom are composites of actual persons), the brothers have effectively tackled the genre, imparting a original story, with music fondly reminiscent of the era, that never bores.
Llewyn Davis (the sad-eyed Oscar Isaac in a superlative breakout performance) is a struggling artist in Greenwich Village New York trying to make it solo after his partner committed suicide. The movie covers a week in his life that carefully chronicles his struggle to survive. First, he tries to obtain temporary shelter with his married musical pals Jean and Jim (played admirably by Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake), the former of which informs Davis that she is pregnant with his child. A visit to his sister to get a handout is met with total disdain. His road trip to Chicago to audition for a prominent music exec (F. Abraham Murray in a brief but memorable scene) ends disastrously. And his return to New York discourages him to the point where he decides to chuck it all and rejoin the Merchant Marines-only to find out his sister threw out his Merchant Marine license. This is further exasperated when he is told that he needs $85 to obtain a new one, which is tough for a penniless homeless musician.
These and other scenes depict Llewyn as a totally bitter and unsympathetic dude. Yet, despite that, Isaac manages us to feel so sorry for his plight that I actually found myself secretly rooting for him.
Even though this synopsis seems to paint a bleak depressing portrait of a struggling artist, the Coens typically infuse enough continuous humor and pathos to keep those 105 minutes flying along. All of this works because of the extraordinary acting and musical abilities of Oscar Isaac.
Special mentions go out to the amazing cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel as well as the production design of Jess Gonchor who both expertly capture the times and feel of 1961. And, as he did for O Brother Where Art Thou, T. Bone Burnett serves as executive music producer.
A special note about the score: All of the actors performed their original and traditional songs live. Also, the main character is loosely based on Dave Van Ronk (the title refers to Van Ronk's 1963 album "Inside Dave Van Ronk") who actually sings his song over the closing credits.
This is a modest film by the talented filmmakers. Yet it ranks as one of my all time favorites from their vast outstanding catalogue.
Upcoming: American Hustle
Lllwelyn (Oscar Isaac) ponders his next
Jean (Carey Mulligan) and hubby
Jim (Justin Timberlake) performing
at The Gaslight Café