Combustible Celluloid
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With: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett, Max Casella, Jerry Grayson, Jeanine Serralles, Adam Driver, Stark Sands, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, F. Murray Abraham
Written by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Directed by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
MPAA Rating: R for language including some sexual references
Running Time: 105
Date: 12/06/2013

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Fare Thee Well

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The sixteenth feature film by those unique and unpredictable filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside LLewyn Davis is their first film that, storywise, seems to recall some of their earlier efforts.

Like their 2009 film A Serious Man, Inside Llewyn Davis is set in the 1960s and concerns a lost, sad, and searching lone main character. Both characters are less humorous, and indeed more serious, than other Coen characters.

And like their 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? the new movie features an incredible soundtrack of homespun, folksy music, once again created under the guidance of composer T-Bone Burnett.

But there's something new about Inside Llewyn Davis. It's not overly silly or funny, and it's not overly weird, though it is both of those things in smaller measure.

It's a movie that takes a little work to get inside, and the payoff may not be immediate. But it could linger for a long time to come, and ultimately, it seems more grounded, deeper, and more touching than anything the Coens have done in a while.

Oscar Isaac stars as the title character, Llewyn Davis. Isaac gives a cranky and exasperated performance. If this man is not at the end of his rope, he's almost there. Let's call him frayed.

He's a folk singer that used to be part of a duo, and it's only about halfway through the movie that we find out what happened to Llewyn's partner. He sings when he can, tries to get new gigs, and meanwhile sleeps on the couches of admirers as well as old friends.

In one apartment, he accidentally lets out a pet cat and then can't get it back inside, so he carries it around for much of the movie, trying to figure out what to do with it.

He also crashes on the couch of a former fling and fellow singer, Jean (Carey Mulligan), who is furious at Llewyn for getting her pregnant. In addition to his other troubles, he must raise the money to pay for her abortion.

He gets a little money performing on a novelty record, "Please Mr. Kennedy," a hilarious tune written and sung by Jim (Justin Timberlake), who is Jean's current boyfriend.

At one point, Llewyn takes a road trip with a cranky old jazz musician, Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his nearly silent, cigarette-smoking driver (Garrett Hedlund), in the hopes of landing a career-saving gig.

It begins and ends in a local dive where Llewyn sometimes plays for "basket" money (i.e. whatever the patrons put in the basket). The movie has an odd circular structure, or perhaps more oval-shaped, wherein events seem to repeat themselves.

Is Llewyn doomed to repeat his mistakes? One of the movie's questions is whether he is the primary architect of his own sorry fate. The things he tries to accomplish himself never seem to pay off, but the things that just sort of happen to him are rather crucial.

His music, specifically, is heartbreaking and powerful, but it's not defined by the guidelines of the time. It's too much this or too little that, so it's hard to package and sell. It's hard to understand your reaction in the moment (much like the movie itself).

Yet, as with O Brother, Where Art Thou? it's the music that makes Inside Llewyn Davis something special. In dealing with other humans, Llewyn is gruff and guarded, but when he sings, all his rage and fear and sadness comes pouring out; it's so passionate you may even need to turn away, but you will eventually turn back.

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