There is a moment in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the new Coen brothers film that stormed the Palais Saturday, when the owner of Manhattan's Gaslight club circa 1961 asks Davis what he thinks of the four Irish sweater-clad singers performing. Davis, a struggling folk singer with an edge, ponders the question. “I like the sweaters,” he says.
You can imagine Joel and Ethan Coen cracking up at that line. Appearing in a press conference after the screening, with more laughter on the panel than any other press conference heretofore, Joel said, “You can tell from the film that we have enormous respect for folk music, which is not to say that there aren’t funny things about folk music.” (More from conference here.)
Indeed: The army private with a down-home innocence and a Jim Nabors voice (Stark Sands); the urban Jewish singer wearing a cowboy hat and a new, out-west name (Adam Driver); the sincere neatnik singer and friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) whose wife Jean (Carey Mulligan) exudes ethereal loveliness on stage but foul-mouthed bitterness off it; the homely lady with the auto-harp who a drunken, obnoxious Davis can’t resist heckling; a classically ineffective and ancient agent who offers his winter coat to Davis rather than payments.
Then there is the strange Doctor John-like character (John Goodman) with whom Davis shares a car to Chicago, not to mention the Gorfeins, an amiable Upper West Side couple whose circle include a very large early music aficionado and a Jewish-Chinese couple whose combined name is Greenfung. Yep, it’s a Coen brothers film.
Set within the Greenwich Village folk scene without trying to represent it, the film follows a few weeks in the life of the talented but hapless Davis (Oscar Isaac in a star turn) who gets beat up by a stranger, wakes up confused in the Gorfeins' apartment, then gets locked out with their cat and has to take it with him downtown on the subway, and is berated by Jean, who wants to abort the pregnancy she blames on him because Llewyn “turns everything to shit.” And that’s just in the first few scenes.
In truth, there’s nothing particularly likable about Llewyn Davis, who sleeps on the sofas of those friends who aren’t mad at him, and offers little in return. But his music is pure, as is his desire. Isaac shows remarkable singing skills (“we were screwed until we found him,” said Ethan Coen about the casting), particularly in a scene in which he auditions for the Chicago mogul Bud Grossman (a sharp F. Murray Abraham). In every other film you’ve ever seen about an artist trying to make it, this would be the it moment, when a star is born. This is not one of those films.
Llewyn’s music is itself a big part of the movie – at some points it even feels like a performance film. Credit executive music producer T-Bone Burnett ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?"), whom Isaac thanked during the press conference for telling him to “sing it like you’re singing it to yourself.” That’s how it feels, in fact, and Isaac elicits some genuinely moving moments. A soundtrack album may be released, said Burnett at the press conference.
One amazingly crazy song, and scene, is a recording gig Jim arranges for himself, Llewyn and Al Cody, the aforementioned urban Jewish cowboy whose role here is to make a lot of those kooky basso-profundo sounds popular at the time. Somehow the combination of Jim’s absolute sincerity (he wrote the song), Al’s kookiness and Llewyn’s edge (he dismisses the song) make for a memorable comic turn.
As funny as it all is, you can’t help but appreciate the real skills exhibited by Llewyn/Isaac and Jim/Timberlake. Afterward, Llewyn arranges for a quick contract-musician payment – he needs the cash to pay for Jean’s abortion – at the expense of ever receiving any royalties. You know immediately that the song will prove to be a hit. As will this movie.