Inside Llewyn Davis ★★★★★

"I don't see a lot of money here."

Due to its curiously cyclical framing device, the Coen brothers' extraordinary Inside Llewyn Davis can be seen to span either eternity or a frosty February week in 1961. The film tracks its forlorn titular performer (Oscar Isaac) as he juggles a thorny personal life and a precarious professional existence. Superficially the stakes are very straightforward: return cat, get money for abortion, acquire better management. Beneath this modest tale lies a lovingly crafted evocation of Greenwich Village as the American folk music revival is drained of its idealism and slowly consumed by the mass media it derides.

Our perpetually couch-surfing troubadour is clearly not a hit but neither is he a neophyte; having recorded as half a duo until the other half suddenly opted for suicide, the clinically jaded Llewyn has since released a solo album to zero fanfare. Llewyn is a folksinger at odds with the prevailing taste for contemporary "kumbaya" fare typified by the likes of the modish Kingston Trio. Though it goes unmentioned in the film it is worth noting that in performance style Llewyn is somewhat of an ethnic revivalist. While nearly every other performer in the film plays soothing material contemporaneous to 1961, Llewyn's scratchy repertoire dates back to the field recordings of father-and-son folklore preservationists John and Alan Lomax (the closest he or the Coens come to spelling this out is when Llewyn follows his first performance with a bit of a mantra, "If it was never new and it never gets old, then it's a folk song"). Moreover Llewyn plays a Gibson L-1 guitar, the same guitar seen in the only extant photograph of blues legend Robert Johnson. Already in 1961, seeking out this instrument would be a conspicuous choice because it had been discontinued in 1937.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying that Llewyn isn't just a self-destructive asshole (though he certainly is that); he's a genuine traditionalist disgusted by what he regards as careerist social-climbing by ersatz interlopers. As evidenced by his arduous pilgrimage to Chicago to meet impresario Bud Grossman, Llewyn clearly wants to succeed, but his dismissal of Grossman's offer to package him in a proto-Peter, Paul & Mary outfit makes just as clear that he can only do so on his own terms. It's no wonder the Coens settled on a Sisyphean (non)resolution rather than a traditional climax; for what is one man's credibility in the face of a massive industry bent on opportunism? The answer, my friend, is pissing in the wind.

Inside Llewyn Davis represents the Coens at their most subtle, weaving a magical alchemy by studding their admittedly fictionalized narrative not only with reminiscent geographic indicators (e.g., conjuring the iconic cover photo from The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan in a casual framing of Llewyn crossing Jones St.) but also with ancillary characters clearly based on real personalities in the Greenwich Village folk scene. Jack McBrayer lookalike Stark Stands plays a hilariously robotic send-up of Tom Paxton. The uncredited producer of Jim's (Justin Timberlake) novelty hit "Please Mr. Kennedy" is a dead ringer for John Hammond (who signed Bob Dylan to Columbia the same month during which the film is set). For Bud (read: Albert) Grossman, the Coens couldn't resist using an actor of F. Murray Abraham's quality even though they look nothing alike (Steve Bannon would have been a better match). Musically speaking even Llewyn himself is fashioned after Dave Van Ronk, though temperamentally they are worlds apart; Van Ronk was a garrulous and generous personality, affectionately dubbed "the Mayor of Macdougal Street" within the folk circuit. The array of notable historical figures being artfully spoofed does much to leaven the bleakness of Llewyn's foredoomed struggle to flourish without surrendering his credibility.

The entire cast shines. Carrie Mulligan delivers a hall-of-fame tirade in Washington Square Park. John Goodman steals the road trip section as a folk-baiting jazz purist with a fear of felines. Sands and Timberlake are preternaturally earnest folk automatons. But Isaac's performance, though measured and largely internal, is one for the ages. Like all of the film's performers, he cut his material live and plays beautifully. Whether singing or gibing Isaac is a blistering raw nerve in search of solace.

Additional points for inclusion of three adorable cats (there is no greater testament to the strength of the film than that it remains my very favorite of this young century even after Llewyn apparently kills one kitty and abandons another).

Some stray notes:
-WHAT YOU DO
-IT'S NOT THE FUCKIN' OPERA, JACKASS
-LLEWYN IS THE CAT
-DO YOU PLUG YOURSELF IN SOMEWHERE?
-LIKE KING MIDAS' IDIOT BROTHER
-THAT'S WHAT YOU FEEL BAD ABOUT?
-NOT ONE OF YOUR GREENWICH VILLAGE FRIENDS
-PLEASE DON'T START WITH THE DOUBLE CONDOMS AGAIN
-FUCK MIKE'S PART!
-WHERE'S ITS SCROTUM, LLEWYN!?
-YOUR LITTLE FLYSPECK HORSESHIT TOWN
-GROWN MAN WITH A CAT—IS THAT PART OF YOUR ACT?
-DID YOU BRING YOUR DICK ALONG TOO?
-TWELVE NOTES IN A SCALE, DIPSHIT
-YOU THROW YOURSELF OFF THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE, TRADITIONALLY
-THIS WOULD INTEREST YOU
-IN THIS CAR, BAD MANNERS WON'T WORK
-IS THAT A NAUTICAL TERM?
-I LIKE THE SWEATERS
-THIS FOLK SHIT, I DON'T KNOW
-HOW'D YOU GET THE GIG, BETTY?
-ARE YOU WEARIN' GINGHAM PANTIES?
-THE SHOW IS BULLSHIT—FOUR MICKS & GRANDMA MOSES

In my Top 100 list.
In my New York movies ranked list.

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