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‘Inside Llewyn Davis’: Fine music from Coen brothers’ jerk of a hero

‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ ★★★1⁄2

Llewyn Davis Oscar Isaac

Jean Berkey Carey Mulligan

Jim Berkey Justin Timberlake

Roland Turner John Goodman

Johnny Five Garrett Hedlund

CBS Films presents a film directed and written by Ethan and Joel Coen. Running time: 105 minutes. Rated R (for language and some sexual references). Opens Friday at local theaters.

Actors yearn to work for Coens, star Oscar Isaac says

Updated: January 21, 2014 6:02AM

Llewyn Davis is a through-and-through jerk.

The more apt description for Llewyn would be the word that begins with “a” and ends with “e,” but you know what I’m saying. Even those who love him say, “You’re SUCH an a------.”

Llewyn’s also a gifted (albeit struggling) folk artist, capable of taking you to another world and grabbing you by the emotions with just his guitar and his voice. This guy just might have what it takes to become a folk legend.

Or maybe not. We’ll see.

Few filmmakers combine painstaking, beautifully articulated authenticity with deadpan absurdity as well as the Coen brothers, who have crafted another unique period piece with “Inside Llewyn Davis.” This is a well-crafted look at the American folk music scene of the early 1960s, a sometimes hilarious dry comedy — and oh yeah, the music is terrific.

In the Greenwich Village bohemian-folk scene just prior to the Bob Dylan explosion, we find Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) leaning into his guitar at the smoke-filled Gaslight Café, crooning “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” in a voice that might not be technically perfect but is unique and soulful. Maybe he’s a star?

The tepid applause and Llewyn’s sardonic response to that reaction tells us otherwise. He’s young and he’s handsome in a scruffy way, he’s clearly talented — yet he looks like he’s ready to spit on the floor, give everyone the finger and disappear into bitter oblivion.

Turns out Llewyn was once part of a duo that made a very minor splash on the folk music scene — but then his partner went and jumped off a bridge, and now it’s just Llewyn, who depends on the sofas of strangers for lodging and is growing increasingly cynical by the minute.

Funny thing is, Llewyn has a fairly substantial support group of well-meaning friends and family, and he has a way of ingratiating himself with people he’s just met. Yet even when he’s welcomed into the homes of peace-and-love, peace-and-love college professors (only to lash out at them at a dinner party in a scene of horrific cruelty), or crashing on the couch of a faux-cowboy singer who’s actually from Jersey, Llewyn seems incapable of simple human gratitude. The one character for whom he shows the most concern is the professors’ cat, who becomes the centerpiece of a wickedly funny running joke.

As is almost always the case with a Coen brothers film, we’re treated to fantastic, quirky performances from an eclectic group. All sink into their roles quite well.

Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan play the somewhat popular duo of Jim and Jean. He’s an upbeat, semi-clueless good guy with a practical grasp of the industry. (Knowing Llewyn’s in desperate need of cash, Jim brings him aboard for the recording of a Ray Stevens-like novelty song about the space race called “Please Mr. Kennedy.”) She sings like an angel onstage but is in a constant state of simmering rage when dealing with Llewyn, and with good reason. Noting that Llewyn messes up with everyone he encounters, Jean says, “Everything you touch turns to s---. You’re like King Midas’ idiot brother.”

John Goodman is like a Tennessee Williams creation as Roland Turner, an obese, grotesquely offensive musician who can’t shut up. Garrett Hedlund has a Beat Generation poet vibe as the driver taking Roland and Llewyn to Chicago, where Llewyn hopes to audition for F. Murray Abraham’s Bud Grossman, who runs a popular and influential folk joint on Dearborn Street.

When Llewyn sings “The Death of Queen Jane” for Grossman in the empty, cavernous club, the cold morning wind whipping on the other side of the door, we’re thinking this might be the moment when his fortunes turn. I won’t say which way it turns, but I will say when the last note fades, Grossman’s reaction is unforgettable.

Even though “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a heartfelt tribute to the music and the times without a note of condescension, the Coen brothers also remind us in stark and sometimes very funny ways that for every folk singer who made it, there were hundreds who eventually fell on their guitars.

Oscar Isaac gives a memorable performance as a thoroughly unlikable, selfish, socially poisonous miscreant. We’re not supposed to embrace Llewyn and we don’t, but we are fascinated by his journey. There were a few vignettes that felt gratuitously broad, including Llewyn’s visit to his senile father (which ends with a cheap, nasty payoff) and one too many scenes with Llewyn and his sister, who flounces about the kitchen putting groceries away while berating Llewyn, who of course deserves to be berated. Thing is, we’ve already seen him wear out his welcome in three or four other kitchens or living rooms. It’s overkill.

Ah, but the music, and the brilliant cinematography, and the dead-on set designs, and the great script, and the many fine performances. It takes a special level of skill to make one feel such affection for a film about such an …

You know what I’m saying.


Twitter: @richardroeper

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