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Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen brothers revisit a lost time in music

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Folksinger Llewyn Davis leans into the dim spotlight shining down onto the stage, playing guitar with homespun eloquence, eyes closed as he sings a ballad that was old before he was born. Llewyn (Oscar Isaac), a modestly popular performer in the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961, is deep into his music, fully connected to the universal emotions behind the archaic diction (“Fare thee well…”). But off stage, his life is at loose ends. And what’s worse, as any student of ’60s music will know, the times are about to change, leaving Llewyn behind to sulk over his misfortune.

With Inside Llewyn Davis, writer-directors Ethan and Joel Coen recreate a lost world that set the stage for the poetic ambitions of popular music in the ’60s. The scenes shot outdoors in Greenwich Village evoke the wintry streets under chilly sunlight of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album cover; the narrow corridors of the walk-up apartments define Llewyn’s world. The club where he plays for coins dropped in a basket is dark and smoky; the audience listens with rapt attention while sipping espresso. They warmly applaud his singing, yet most everyone is tired of Llewyn, always bumming cigarettes and sleeping on their couches. When his folk-singing sometimes girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) announces that she’s pregnant, possibly with his child, she calls him “King Midas’ idiot brother.” Everything he touches turns to ruin.

Isaac gives an empathetic performance as Llewyn, a sulky, temperamental young man trying to escape his working-class origins, fiercely determined to slip the boundaries of “square,” but unable to make a living or keep his act together. Llewyn is the serious anchor of a film that is largely dramatic, sometimes heartbreakingly so, while the Coens’ trademark quirky deadpanning occurs around the edges. Llewyn’s tight-fisted manager and his grumpy secretary provide comic relief, as do his tweedy Columbia University intellectual friends. John Goodman gives a darkly funny cameo as a preposterously arrogant jazz musician lost in heroin addiction.

T Bone Burnett, who helmed the multi-platinum music from the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?, produced the soundtrack with knowing attention to the styles of the period. With a few characters and stories borrowed from the memoirs of Greenwich Village folkie Dave Van Ronk, Inside Llewyn Davis is studded with the sharp, seemingly random turns of reality; it unflinchingly refuses to sentimentalize its hapless protagonist, who is unaware that the unknown singer he hears at the club in the final scene is Bob Dylan, just a few years short of changing the music world forever.

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