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Film review: The Coen brothers make beautiful music with ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’

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Llewyn considers his options.

Four stars

Inside Llewyn Davis Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Rated R. Opens Friday.

Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis began its development as an adaptation of folk singer Dave Van Ronk’s memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street, but at some point the Coens decided instead to create a fictional story inspired by some details of Van Ronk’s life, along with other aspects of the Greenwich Village folk-music scene in the early 1960s. The movie is definitely better off for abandoning its fidelity to the truth. That’s not to say that Inside is an inaccurate portrayal of its time period—the Coens clearly value the music and culture of the folk movement, and they include lovely, often haunting performances of songs from that era. But the story of B-list folkie Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) plays out as a quintessentially Coen-esque fable, reminiscent of their darkly funny character studies Barton Fink and A Serious Man.

Many of the Coens’ most popular films are heavily plot-driven, but Inside’s narrative is the polar opposite of intricately plotted movies like The Big Lebowski and Fargo. It chronicles a week or so in Llewyn’s life, as he drifts from couch to couch and gig to gig, taking advantage of his friends’ hospitality and clinging to any remote possibility of restarting his stillborn career, which has stalled with the release of his first solo album (also titled Inside Llewyn Davis). Like Llewyn’s career, the movie is a series of frustrating, comical encounters, as Llewyn gets stonewalled by his grizzled manager, records a humiliating novelty song with his more successful colleague (Justin Timberlake), fights with his ex-lover (Carey Mulligan) and performs a series of beautiful, heartfelt songs for audiences that range from politely appreciative to wholly indifferent.

Most of these set pieces are dryly funny and emotionally rich (the only misstep features Coens regular John Goodman hijacking the movie for 15 minutes as a heroin-addicted jazz musician), anchored by Isaac’s humane, deeply felt performance as Llewyn. Objectively, Llewyn is a lout, mooching off the people who care about him and lashing out when things don’t go his way. But Isaac makes him sympathetic and soulful, and the movie is an often heartbreaking look at the way that even the most talented artists can end up with nothing but thwarted dreams. “I don’t see a lot of money here,” a pragmatic manager deadpans right after Llewyn pours his heart and soul into a wrenching ballad. For the Coens, that’s where the most interesting stories can be found.

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