A cat named Ulysses is a key figure in Inside Llewyn Davis and that reference is not the only thing that calls to mind an earlier film from Joel and Ethan Coen. The emphasis on music also very much put me in the mind of their O Brother Where Art Thou? And yet, tonally, the brothers’ latest film feels completely different. O Brother is often silly, but ultimately redemptive and hopeful whereas Inside Llewyn Davis is kind of sad and a little bit haunting despite being ripe with the expected off kilter humor. It’s a beautiful, melancholy rumination on the capricious nature of success.
Oscar Isaac (who’s biggest previous splash was as Carey Mulligan’s husband in Drive) gives a star-making performance as the title character. He appears in every scene, sings in many of them and is fully convincing as a struggling folk singer in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s who always finds himself on the other side of the door to success despite his considerable talent.
The story plays out episodically as Davis stumbles from one ill-fated venture to the next, constantly taking one step forward and two steps back. Along the way he encounters a surprisingly sharp and funny Carey Mulligan as an angry former lover, Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver (Girls) as odd fellow folk singers, John Goodman as a chatty but dismissive old jazz man and F. Murray Abraham as an amusingly blunt agent whom Davis hopes can offer one last career boost.
Loosely inspired by the life of Greenwich Village folk singer Dave Van Ronk, Inside Llewyn Davis is no biopic. It’s about all of the anonymous or nearly anonymous masses who have repeatedly struggled yet failed to ever make the pages of history. It turns out fame and success require more than just hard work and dedication. To the sweat and tears, they need just the right amounts of fate and fortune. Not everyone can be Bob Dylan. That’s what makes him so great.
The great thing about the Coen Brothers is that each time out they make a film that feels different from the one that came before it. They all have similarities and they all feel uniquely “Coen” but they’re always a little surprising and unexpected. In their younger days, they were often wrongly accused by critics of disliking their sad sack loser characters. The compassion they show for Llewyn Davis and the dignity they allow him should eliminate that notion for all time.
I doubt somehow that Inside Llewyn Davis will achieve the crossover success of some of the Brothers’ other pictures, but I’ll bet the soundtrack of traditional and original folk songs will be a hit in its own right and help bump the popularity of the film in a similar way to O Brother Where Art Thou?