Movies: Coen brothers say casting "Llewyn Davis" star was stroke of luck

  • Article by: ROB NELSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 25, 2013 - 4:30 PM

Once past a crucial casting decision, Joel and Ethan Coen could get on with “Inside Llewyn Davis,” their non-sarcastic ode to early folk music.

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Joel Coen spoke about the movie at Cannes.

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– Born and raised in St. Louis Park, the Coen brothers — Joel and Ethan — would seem to have a second hometown in the south of France, where the Cannes Film Festival has premiered a number of their films. Their latest, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” a startlingly sincere and poignant portrait of a struggling Greenwich Village folk singer circa 1961, was warmly received at its Cannes screening last Sunday.

For a pair of writer-directors whose darkly satiric work has tended toward the sarcastic (or even the savage, if you’re not a fan), “Inside Llewyn Davis” — opening in the Twin Cities in December — seems a different animal entirely.

In an early scene, for example, co-stars Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan croon the corny yet irresistible “Five Hundred Miles” in a tenderly lit Gaslight Cafe. The scene looks and feels romantic — a kiss blown backward 50 years to the pre-Bob Dylan folk scene.

While the success of “True Grit,” the Coens’ previous picture and biggest-ever box-office hit, might appear to provide a clue to the new film’s generosity of spirit, the key question for Cannes reporters gathered for roundtable interviews at the Carlton Hotel is: Why the sudden joie de vivre?

“I don’t know,” deadpanned Joel, surprising no one with his familiar reluctance to analyze the Coen brothers’ movies. “The stories have their own imperatives for everything from tone to point of view. Why do we choose one story as opposed to something else? Who knows?”

Given the liberal use of broad caricature in the Coen universe, one could be forgiven for having expected “Inside Llewyn Davis” to poke fun at folkies in the manner of, say, Christopher Guest and his troupe (“A Mighty Wind”). But the film’s vision appears, for the most part, downright gentle — and even the brothers themselves appear to agree with that designation.

“You can tell from the movie that the music is something that we have a genuine and deep fondness and respect for,” said Joel. “The [movie] was never intended as any kind of parody — not to say that there aren’t funny things about folk music. There are plenty of funny things about folk music.”

Then followed evidence of a newly mellow modesty in Joel, 58, and Ethan, 55.

“We would be the last people to dispute the fact that we’ve been very lucky,” said Joel. “And certainly luck plays a big part [in careers].”

The filmmaker was referring in part to the fact that “Inside Llewyn Davis” is about an artist — an acoustic guitar-slinging beatnik folkie singer (beautifully played by Oscar Isaac) — who’s sufficiently talented but not at all blessed with that crucial element of serendipity.

“Making a movie about someone who’s not successful and isn’t very good at what they do isn’t very interesting,” Joel said. “But making a movie about someone who’s not successful and is very good at what they do is interesting.”

Indeed, Isaac, a relative newcomer (he appeared in “Drive” and “W.E.” and starred as Joseph in the 2006 film “The Nativity Story”), nails the characterization of a musician who’s unjustly unknown — in part by being unjustly unknown himself.

“There was a point when we wondered whether we had written something that was impossible to cast,” said Joel. “Because it’s a movie about a musician, and because there’s so much [musical] performance in the movie, we started by [auditioning] only musicians. But we didn’t find what we were looking for.

“Conversely, it seemed just as difficult to find an actor who’s musically talented enough to convince you through his performance that he’s a musician. And then came Oscar, who went to Juilliard and has been playing music his entire life.”

Ethan, the quiet one, made it plain: “We were screwed until we met Oscar.”

Llewyn’s melancholy pavement-pounding aside, everything related to the Coen brothers seemed in Cannes to be coming up roses — or at least until the subject of a “Big Lebowski” sequel was broached.

“I don’t see it in our future,” Ethan said flatly.

“I don’t think it’s going to happen,” said Joel even more flatly.

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