The latest character to be fed into the Coen brothers’ metaphorical wood chipper is a 1960s Greenwich Village folk singer. Yet their bleak, bittersweet comedy of frustration, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” is surprisingly empathetic toward its embattled title character. To a rare degree, the Coens encourage our emotional identification with Llewyn. He’s a gifted, pompous, sensitive, arrogant, sympathetic cad, played without a false note by Oscar Isaac.
Sure, Llewyn endures an avalanche of abuse, most of it self-inflicted. This flat-broke troubadour, whose disdain of “careerists” is tainted with an unsuccessful man’s envy, is a broken record about integrity. But you cannot watch the Coens’ rapt, uninterrupted takes of Isaac’s sublime musical interludes and not be moved. Llewyn insists on the importance of his preposterous profession, musically sharing people’s stories in all their soulful richness. Onstage the antihero stops being his own worst enemy and creates fleeting beauty.
Offstage, that’s another story. Llewyn negotiates life like a man unicycling over banana peels. An obnoxious man. Once part of a promising musical duo, he’s now adrift on his own. Scraping by, he sleeps on whatever couch may be available. Since he burns bridges like a pyromaniac, his options are dwindling. His occasional hostess, Jean (Carey Mulligan), romantic and singing partner of Jim (Justin Timberlake), is pregnant, and furiously lays the responsibility on Llewyn. She delivers a hilarious rant, calling him “King Midas’ idiot brother,” whose touch turns everything to garbage.
There’s no doubt about Llewyn’s talent, though. Sunny, unsuspecting Jim recruits him as a last-minute fill-in on a novelty record, and Llewyn knocks it out of the park. He’s also so strapped that he signs away his royalties on this sure hit for a piddling immediate payout. Llewyn’s hard-luck odyssey takes him to Chicago for an audition that could make his career.
His escort on the road trip is Roland Turner (the indispensable John Goodman), a jazz musician who brings him along to help pay for gas. Uproariously bitter and pickled in hipper-than-thou smugness, Turner is a nightmare vision of the person Llewyn may become. A more realistic glimpse of Llewyn’s also-ran fate comes near the finale, when a nasal-voiced newcomer named Young Bob takes the spotlight and sings Dylan’s “Farewell.”
The film is loosely based on real figures from the coffeehouse music scene. The more you know about the near-great folkie Dave Van Ronk, hotshot manager Albert Grossman and self-mythologizing Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, the more inside jokes you’ll catch, but no prior knowledge is required. The soundtrack is a sublime collection of sing-and-strum ballads, and the production design is a flawless evocation of Kennedy-era Americana. Look at the way the film’s weathered backroad gas stations chafe against the newly minted modernist chain restaurants along the interstates and you have a vision of a nation turning the page on the past. If it weren’t for a single forced, cheap scatological gag, I’d call this the Coens’ most nearly perfect film.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” should retire the old charge that the Coens are misanthropes, who thrill at belittling humanity. Here they give every player his due, while making squares the nicest folks and cool cats the worst. The Coens’ character studies approach the imaginative richness of a novel. They know the paths of righteousness and egotism run parallel and can intersect often over the course of a life. Their best work warns us against the tunnel vision that sees people, or life, in fixed formulas of good and evil.
The film even has multiple endings, one of them at the beginning. Llewyn receives an alleyway drubbing from a mysterious figure twice, as if he’s running in circles on the hamster wheel of fate. His retort to the departing aggressor at the fadeout is a bloodied but unbowed “Au revoir.” He knows that in this life, the beat and the beatings go on. You’ve got to roll with the punches. The Dude abides. Llewyn perseveres.