Photo: Courtesy CBS Films/Alison Rosa ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC.
Not to spoil the Coen brothers' desolate, funny, and light-footed Inside Llewyn Davis for you, but the hero ends up right where he began, flat on his ass behind Greenwich Village's Gaslight Café. Much like the lilting, four-chord folk songs that pop up here and there in this short poem of a film, Inside is cyclical and repetitive in the best of ways. As Llewyn Davis — played to grouchy perfection by rising actor Oscar Isaac — himself says in both the opening and closing minutes about a ditty he's just performed, "It was never new, and it never gets old."
Fans of Joel and Ethan Coen's work (an oeuvre now spanning almost 30 years and 16 films), will see all their hallmarks; winsome dialogue and wordplay; stunning cinematography and attention to detail; curious, almost mythical characters; John Goodman. Inside even echoes classic literature (this time Molière) and features long stretches of unoccupied roads, animal hijinks, and references to Greek myths for Coen completists. In three decades, the brothers have become expert performers playing the same chords over and over, always to better effect. Oh, and then there's the music itself.
From Raising Arizona, to O Brother, Where Art Thou? and beyond, the Coens have had a long love affair with musical americana, one expressed best here. Not only do chunks of dialog, situations, and shots repeat themselves, lyrics and songs return in singular performances by Isaac, Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, and Stark Sands, and across the length of the film itself. Each song or performance is a weigh station on the Mobius strip of Llewyn's failures, all of them executed beautifully by a mix of professional and non-professional signers (Isaac in particular). While the shaggy dog story of a plot creeps along, it's the songs — and the moments bookending them — that give the movie its emotional depth and heft.
It's only in song that Isaac's Llewyn finds anything resembling grace or comfort. Otherwise, he's pinballing his way from crashpad to crashpad, devouring the kindness of others while returning little. Eternally paying for past mistakes by creating fresh new ones, Llewyn gives us and the rest of the cast only a few charitable moments of music, most of which end in shit anyways (one of them, quite literally). Unlike the historical "Mayor of MacDougal Street," Dave Van Ronk, on which he's ever-so loosely based, Llewyn is fully doomed with or without his talent.
Warming and adding value to all this Sysiphian cycling is the Coens' charming surrealist touch. Metaphors are strained to their comic breaking point — particularly with a "The Cat Came Back" gag — and even little snippets of angry dialogue spark laughs (a flinty Carey Mulligan provides real fire here). Like all films from these directors, the bit parts (from Garrett Hedlund, Timberlake, Sands, Girls' Adam Driver, and F. Murray Abraham) shine and you want to ditch your apartment and move into the production design (Jess Gonchor's early 1960s, wintry New York is cold and perfect.)
Though not the best Coen brothers film (or the best of the season, generally) Inside Llewyn Davis is a piece of ingenious moviemaking you should watch now — like, now. At a time of year when we're diving into the existential morass of assessing who we are and what we've done in the last 12 months, Inside couldn't be more timely. Trapped in vicious cycles of our own making, we usually arrive at December realizing that, for all the changes we see, nothing is new. Well, say the Coen brothers, with a few good songs (or movies), at least it never gets old...right?
Inside Llewyn Davis is playing in select cities now and opens in wide release December 20th.
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