‘Inside Llewyn Davis’: Blast from the past

December 3, 2013

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We are awash in films examining the Beats and the roots of the generation shift that occurred from the late 1950s through the 1960s – but none with a clearer eye than Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

The film is a circular thing: It seems to end up exactly where it starts out. Which may be the point, in this character study of a would-be folk singer standing just shy of a big moment for folk music in the Greenwich Village of the early 1960s.

Indeed, that’s one of the jokes (and by jokes, I mean sly winks, not guffaw-triggers) in the film: that, if you look hard, you’ll catch a glimpse of the young Robert Zimmerman (actually, an actor playing him) taking the stage in the background of another scene.

The future is coming. It is almost the moment when folk music will become mainstream enough to be on a national TV network: the weekly show, “Hootenanny,” which tried to pasteurize the growing sense of social commentary out of what had started as a celebration of traditional music. Almost.

Llewyn Davis (played with bristly charm by Oscar Isaac) is a purist about the music he sings: mournful and incisive songs from the past that capture an emotional moment in the present. But his commercial potential – his delivery comes minus any jolt of jejune sincerity – seems severely limited.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” seems to take place during the course of a single week in Llewyn’s life. He’s been playing at the pass-the-hats in the Village, trying to flog a solo career, having had mild success as part of a duo. But his solo album went nowhere – and his nightmarish agent may not, in fact, have been trying to get him what could be a breakthrough gig in Chicago.

Meanwhile, Jean (Carey Mulligan), half of the rising duo Jim and Jean (with a clean-cut and earnest Justin Timberlake, complete with ultra-trimmed mustache and beard), has told Llewyn she’s pregnant and needs the money for an abortion. She seems pretty angry at Llewyn, given that she’s not positive the baby is his. But his tendency to self-focus explains a lot.

Couch-surfing around Manhattan, he finally decides to just go for it: travel to Chicago on what few meager dollars he has to audition in person at the Gate of Horn, a folk-music launching pad. But his trip is bizarrely eventful (including a ride from an odd-couple duo played by John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund), even as it proves how intractable his career problems are.

“I don’t see a lot of money,” says the ever-insinuating F. Murray Abraham, as the club owner, after watching Isaac perform a perfectly wrought but downbeat folk song. He offers to team him up with a “guy and a gal” he has. The character is based on Albert Grossman, who ran the club and went on to manage both Dylan and Peter Paul & Mary.

Llewyn can’t seem to get out of his own way. He is the talented guy eternally drawn to bad or ill-thought-out decisions. He acts on impulses – but his instincts are never good ones. Should he chuck it all and go back to the merchant marine?

Inspired by but not necessarily based on folk singer Dave Van Ronk (and his very entertaining memoir, “The Mayor of MacDougal Street”), Llewyn traffics in a world where the idea of being any sort of entertainer is still considered exotic, whether it’s acting or singing. The recording industry still lingers in the final throes of Tin Pan Alley’s dominance, and it’s still a largely regional business, though that market is expanding.

In Llewyn, however, the Coens find the predecessor of the kind of career striver who will become so familiar through “American Idol” and its satanic spawn. Except this was at a point where being a folk musician meant something, other than a route to show-biz success. That kind of idealism – that quality and authenticity should count as much as polish and hype – only ever gets you so far, however, which is about how far Llewyn Davis will end up. Think of him as far closer to Barton Fink than Bob Dylan.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is a wonderfully measured film, packing each frame and scene with information that will, eventually, resonate with something else in the film. If it doesn’t make a star of Isaac, there is no justice.

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