It’s 1961, and Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a talented folk singer trying to launch his career in New York City. Despite the sensitivity displayed in his music, Llewyn seems oblivious to the way his anger and selfishness alienate his friends and undermine his success. Guitar in hand, he wanders around the city in search of a living room couch where he is still welcome to crash.
As in their earlier movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? directors Ethan and Joel Coen worked with music producer T Bone Burnett to pick the perfect songs for this film. Lead actor Oscar Isaac’s lovely voice offers warmth to a grey and cold city. Justin Timberlake, reinventing himself onscreen once again, and Carey Mulligan give credible voices to Jim and Jean, a folkie duo performing the classic “Five Hundred Miles.” While Marcus Mumford, of the popular group Mumford and Sons, does not appear onscreen, he is presented as Llewyn’s former singing partner through a marvelous recording of the traditional song “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song).”
But does the life of an unsuccessful and very foul-mouthed singer, combined with great folk music, make an excellent film? While many critics and Coen fans think so, I was not completely won over. Unlike O Brother, Where Art Thou? or the Coens’ more recent film True Grit, I didn’t find much hope beyond the music or much humor beyond Llewyn’s troubles with a runaway tabby cat.
That said, the film offers sly satire of the 60s folk music revival and the music business in general. An Irish folk group sings while wearing sweaters that match too perfectly; a well-to-do Upper West side professor treats Llewyn as his pet folk musician; and Llewyn’s obnoxious manager does everything he can to torpedo the singer’s career.
When the owner of a club agrees to listen to Llewyn, to hear “what’s inside,” he discovers nothing that will make him a lot of money. Even a road trip with a beat poet and a jazz musician (John Goodman) turns into a dour version of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. On a lighter side, Isaac and Timberlake sing together a goofy, 60s-style novelty song about a hesitant astronaut (“Please Mr. Kennedy”).
As a folk singer, Llewyn is good but for some reason not good enough to make it on the stage Bob Dylan would soon occupy. Like the tabby cat he rescues time and time again, Llewyn will probably just manage to scrape by and live on the fringes of success.
This presentation of a talented failure allows the Coen brothers to ask what an artist needs to succeed. Although this moody film doesn’t provide a clear answer, fans of past or contemporary folk music will certainly enjoy the songs that often soar with, as “Dink’s Song” puts it, “wings like Noah’s dove” above the flood of personal sorrow.
Rated R for language including some sexual references. (CBS Films)