More a character study than a traditional narrative, “Inside Llewyn Davis” lives up to its name by painting a vivid portrait of its main character. Once you get inside Llewyn’s head you probably won’t want to hang out with the guy in real life, but you won’t regret spending two hours with him onscreen.
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is an ambitious folksinger trying to make his voice heard in the center of the folk universe, 1961 Greenwich Village. Essentially homeless, he sofa surfs, imposing himself on an ever dwindling list of friends as he tries to deal with a cold New York winter, a shady record company, a wayward cat, a soured relationship and his career frustrations. Add to that the haunting memory of a former musical partner and you have an abstract parable about artistic temperament and the quest for success.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” opens with a song, the folk standard “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” Performed in its entirety, it telegraphs that the music won’t be relegated to the background; that it will be telling part of the story.
Onstage we see Llewyn at his best. He’s an angel-voiced troubadour whose passionate performances contain the intensity with which he lives his off stage life. Oscar Isaac, in his first leading role after smaller parts in “Sucker Punch,” “Drive” and “W.E.,” has a built-in broodiness that services the character well. He’s a sullen guy, always borrowing money or asking a favor without offering much in return except his talent. It’s a carefully crafted but subtle portrait of the rocky terrain between brilliance and the rest of society.
The loose nature of the story allows for many cameos. People drift through Llewyn’s life like Jean (Carey Mulligan), a foul-mouthed folk singer with a sweet voice and her naïve partner Jim (Justin Timberlake). Mulligan is fiery; an embittered woman angry with Llewyn for very personal reason. Timberlake redeems himself for “Runner Runner” with a nice extended cameo as a wide-eyed folksinger who isn’t as talented as Llewyn but is destined to be more successful.
Garrett Hedlund appears as a monosyllabic beat poet to good effect, but it is John Goodman who wins the cameo showdown. As a jaded jazz player Roland Turner—who sneeringly pronounces ukulele as “ookelele”—he’s as vile a character as has ever appeared in a Coen Bros movie, (which is really saying something). Goodman seems to relish wallowing in the toad-like character’s most unsavory aspects and I suspect audiences will too.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is a fictional look at the vibrant Greenwich Village folk scene. Imagine the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” come to life. Sharp-eyed folkies will note not-so-coincidental similarities between the people Llewyn meets and real-life types like Tom Paxton, Alert Grossman and Mary Travers, but this isn’t a history, it’s a feel. It gives us an under-the-covers look at struggles and naked ambition it takes to get noticed.