“Inside Llewyn Davis” is the rare and peculiar musical film in which the lead character doesn’t much care for many of the songs in it, including those he helps perform. Llewyn (Oscar Isaac, in a star-making turn) begins and ends this curious, sweet movie with a few of his own works — a sight better than the other songs swirling around the Greenwich Village folk music scene of 1961. Between, though, Llewyn must variously endure stage performances by a quartet of Irish-lilted lads in matching cable-knit sweaters, by a spookily earnest G.I. and by a stringy-haired backwoods type from Arkansas, and suffers the indignity of performing in a studio session with a romantic rival (Justin Timberlake) on a novelty song that begs the president not to send the singer into space. As he rolls his eyes, we feel his pain. If they can make it, why not him?
It’s Llewyn’s loss that he doesn’t see the potential in others’ works — and somewhat to the audience’s, as the played-for-laughs “Please Mr. Kennedy” has been nominated for a real-life Golden Globe, as has Isaac. There’s a lot of room for musicians in this epoch, but little for Llewyn, despite his talent. Joel and Ethan Coen, sharing the director and writing credits, plop their latest screw-up antihero into a purgatory of his own making if not of his choosing. He drifts between couches nightly, lugging a small duffle, his guitar, and because of a momentary lapse as he lets himself out of one crash pad, a flight-risk housecat.
His hardships extend beyond general brokeness, and as they’re revealed, it becomes clear why Llewyn’s songs skew morose. Charlie Parker said that if you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. Llewyn sings of death and longing and regret because for him those things are true. Whether anyone else wants to hear it, of course, is another matter. His closest friend may be Carey Mulligan’s Jean, who may be carrying his child, and even she can’t get through two sentences without carving into him. He’s not a particular magnetic fellow, this Llewyn. But as the Coens build his world — he stars in every scene — we come to ease into it with him. He’s no-nonsense in a city that feeds him nothing but. To the credit of their writing and Isaac’s complete performance, we come to feel warm in the skin of a wretch.
To ascribe a plot to “Inside Llewyn Davis” might put too much pressure on the story. He moves around, consumed with the seemingly simple tasks of scraping together a few bucks, and at one point, almost out of sheer homelessness, hitches a ride to Chicago with a curmudgeonly jazzman (John Goodman, forever appearing in Coen brothers movies as the friend you don’t really want). Llewyn doesn’t laugh much, if at all. Love is out of the question. The future’s an apparition. There’s only the work, and the confusion Llewyn feels when no one seems to understand his enduring seriousness with his craft.
The film is funny without ever reverting to the madcap, and it’s softly beautiful, shot with a hazy touch around the edges, as if seen through tears, to give it that 50-years-ago feel. It’s also consistently moving in a way the Coens usually achieve only in short stretches; the closest analogue might be their “A Serious Man,” except that movie showed the horror show suburban life can become. Llewyn’s not there yet. He’s still clinging to the city that is doing everything it can to evict him, a prisoner to his art and his ego, charting a life that’s pure enough and rough enough that what comes out of his horn may yet save him. It’s a recipe for disaster, best appreciated from the safety of a cinema in the ‘burbs. But who could sell a song about that?