‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is the Coen brothers at their not quite bleakest

Oscar Isaac (with tabby cat) plays a struggling, penniless folk musician in '60s Greenwich Village in "Inside Llewyn Davis." Credit: Alison Rosa
Oscar Isaac (with tabby cat) plays a struggling, penniless folk musician in ’60s Greenwich Village in “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
Credit: Alison Rosa

‘Inside Llewyn Davis’
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Stars: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan
Rating: R
5 (out of 5) Globes

The Coen brothers are never entirely upbeat, and they’ve certainly been gloomier than “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Both “Burn After Reading” and “A Serious Man” lack hope, even more than “No Country for Old Men” — and that’s a Cormac McCarthy adaptation. But “Llewyn Davis” is pretty bleak. Its titular hero (Oscar Isaac) is a folk singer in the ‘60s Greenwich Village scene, and he’s as uncompromising as he is unpleasant. Both explain why he doesn’t have a home. Penniless, he couch-surfs night to night, eternally exploiting the goodwill of an ever-dwindling circle of colleagues, confidants and benefactors.

Hope is dangled cruelly in front of him: The folk scene is taking off. But the masses like upbeat or pretty music, neither of which describes his miserablist dirges. (There’s a terrific running gag about how all downbeat folkies own big boxes of unsold solo records.) There’s no green pasture for him, and no real plot — just a vicious circle of backslides and humiliations. Llewyn floats through his life like a sleepy-eyed ghost, dealing with abuse, both verbal and physical, both unearned and earned. When not dealing with angry exes (including Carey Mulligan, who speaks to him exclusively in insults), he deals with the various tabby cats put accidentally under his care.

The Coens have been alleged with hating their characters. The charge isn’t unearned. They take clear enjoyment in punishing Llewyn. Whatever doesn’t kill him only keeps him just barely alive to be tortured. As in the Coens’ most recent work, the only gods are the filmmakers. And they’re in a sadistic mood.

But as with their other films, their perspective is more complex than that. Llewyn is often unlikable, but he’s impossible to hate. There’s an admiration for Llewyn’s keeping to principles. If the Coens really hated him, they’d make him talentless. Llewyn is not talentless. He’s terrific. He’s just not remotely commercial. His music is deeply soulful, expressing the anguish of a short lifetime of failure and a slow realization that happiness, of any kind, will always be elusive.

What transpires is very funny. It’s funny-funny, as when Llewyn sits in as a session man on a poppy number that includes Adam Driver (“Girls”) whooping ridiculous backing vocals. And it’s pitch black funny. Llewyn’s stomped dreams become increasingly amusing, especially a drawn-out hail mary that builds to a killer punchline. But his failures are also crushing; more than any film, it captures the frustration of trying to make it in an impossible business during a wintry economic (and otherwise) climate. One can watch “Inside Llewyn Davis” as a sad (albeit often pitch black funny) drama or a hilarious (albeit often sad) pitch black comedy.



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
Local

Brooklyn man charged in roommate's stabbing death

A Brooklyn man accused of violently stabbing his roommate to death on Monday is in police custody and faces murder charges.

International

Dinosaurs could have survived asteroid strike

It turns out there is a good and a bad time for the planet to be hit by a meteor, and dinosaurs were just unlucky.…

National

OkCupid admits to Facebook-style experimenting on customers

By Sarah McBrideSAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - OkCupid, a top U.S. matchmaking website, intentionally mismatched users to test its technology, the IAC/InterActive Corp service said on…

Local

MTA fares still increasing 4 percent in newly…

The agency said the 4 percent increases, previously announced in December, will remain steady even as the MTA deals with increasing labor costs.

Movies

Interview: Brendan Gleeson on the way 'Calvary' depicts…

Brendan Gleeson talks about how his new film "Calvary" began over drinks and how his character here is the opposite of the lead in "The Guard."

Movies

'Get on Up' producer Mick Jagger on the…

Mick Jagger, a producer on the James Brown biopic "Get on Up," talks about the time had to tell the singer some bad news and his favorite JB record.

Television

'Glee' star Lea Michele to appear on 'Sons…

"Glee" star Lea Michele has been confirmed as a guest star in the final season of "Sons of Anarchy."

Television

TV watch list, Monday, July 28: 'The Bachelorette'…

See Andi Dorfman make her big choice on tonight's 'Bachelorette' finale.

MLB

Angelo Cataldi: Ryan Howard deserves better from Phillies

Just last week, Ryan Howard endured the embarrassment of a benching that was inevitable, and yet still shocking.

NFL

Larry Donnell has inside track in Giants tight…

Little-known Larry Donnell of Grambling State currently has the inside track, as the second-year player has received the bulk of the first-team reps.

NFL

Computer to Jets: Start Michael Vick over Geno…

Jets general manager John Idzik says the choice of who starts between second-year quarterback Geno Smith and veteran Michael Vick will be a “Jets decision.”

MLB

Yankees looking to trade for Josh Willingham: Report

CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reported Sunday the Yankees are interested in Twins outfielder Josh Willingham.

Travel

Glasgow: Hey, hey, the gangs aren't here

This European city has done a good job getting rid of its more violent residents and revitalizing with artists.

Education

Babson College tops list of best colleges for…

Money magazine has just released its inaugural list of "The Best Colleges for Your Money" -- and the answers have surprised many. Babson College, which…

Education

NYC teens learn how to develop apps during…

Through a program sponsored by CampInteractive, the high schoolers designed their own community-focused apps.

Tech

The Ministry of Silly Walks app is both…

Monty Python have dug into their back catalogue for cash-ins once more, but with the Ministry of Silly Walks app, they've made something that's fun too.