Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
With: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake
Runtime: 105 minutes
THE poster for Inside Llewyn Davis, the new comedy-drama from the Coen brothers, features a musician strolling down a New York street in the 1960s. You do not have to be a Bletchley code breaker to divine the reference to The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan album cover. This time, though, our troubadour's companion is not a bonnie young woman but a cute cat.
It is a wry, quintessentially Coen brothers touch, a move meant to conjure up warm, fuzzy feelings of recognition and a smile besides. In that, it could not be a better introduction to this congenial film. This is the Coens at their crowd-pleasing best, albeit it is their ain crowd they are pleasing. As they chronicle the odyssey of folk musician Llewyn Davis through the streets of Greenwich Village and beyond, they might have a few deep things to say about life and love, but there are laughs to be had here too, and some fabulous music to be heard.
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis opens with the titular folk musician (played by Oscar Isaac) about to sing a song. It is 1961, the Sixties have barely tumbled out of bed and hippies are yet to be invented. The times belong to the folkies, travelling balladeers (even if their journeys are only made by Subway) who are forever yearning for home or days of yore. Llewyn is in the vanguard of the movement, a little harder edged than most. Previously one half of a successful duo, he is now on his own and feeling the cold in more ways than one.
Travelling from couch to couch, finding gigs where he can, Llewyn is down and almost out. Even the woman who is supposed to love him, Jean (Carey Mulligan), can barely tolerate his presence, though matters there are complicated by her being married to her singing partner Jim (Justin Timberlake). The Gorfeins, an upper East Side couple, are among the few who have not yet run out of patience with Llewyn. Yet he cannot even crash with them for a night without letting their house cat escape. So begins the long trek of this male Holly Golightly and his cat to we know not where.
Isaac has long been bubbling below the surface in supporting parts in the likes of Drive, also with Carey Mulligan, and Robin Hood. He managed to survive WE, Madonna's biopic of Edward and Mrs Simpson, by being the best thing in the picture (admittedly, not that hard). Here, though, he is given his turn in the spotlight and delivers a terrific, star-making performance from first to last. Not only can he sing and play guitar, he has the brooding, Byronic, sarcastic air of the ego driven singer-songwriter off to a T.
He is not the only thing in the picture that is pitch perfect. The production design, costumes, and cinematography chime with the period, or rather how we imagine the period to have been. Here is a world of smoky cafes, itchy sweaters, and sludgy skies; but there are also glimpses of the shinier years to come. On the whole, though, this feels like a transition period, for America as much as Llewyn, an era when it was still possible to hit the road in expectation of changing one's life.
When Llewyn heads out of town he does so in the company of an ageing jazz musician (John Goodman, returning to the Coen fold) and his driver (Garrett Hedlund). Even leaving New York City behind, however, is no guarantee Llewyn has any more of a clue about where he is heading.
Now, you might go one of two ways here. You can see the picture as a meditation on the ultimate meaninglessness of life in the manner of A Serious Man, the Coen brothers' 2009 comedy-drama. As ever with the Coens, plenty of breadcrumbs are strewn along the path to lead you to that conclusion, some of them, admittedly, the size of loaves, as when Llewyn, stopping at a service station, spies bathroom graffiti that asks "What are you doing?"
Or you could, as is usually preferable while enjoying a night at the movies, just sit back and enjoy the ride. And what an enjoyable time is to be had on this rollercoaster. Even those who regard folk music as the work of the devil in an Aran sweater will find their feet tapping to the songs brought together by T Bone Burnett and the Coens (the soundtrack is available from Nonesuch Records). The jokes are affectionate, the dialogue scalpel-sharp, and the plot straightforward but engrossing.
Perhaps most surprising is the play between light and shade. One minute you are laughing at, or with, Llewyn over his plight, the next a lump appears in the throat. Gone is the chilliness of some of the brothers' earlier works, and in its place is a piece brimming with fellow feeling.
In short, if you are a Coen brothers fan, or even if you are not entirely sure if you are, don't think twice about buying a ticket to see Inside Llewyn Davis: it's all right.