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‘Inside Llewyn Davis:’ Almost Purrrfect

“The Coen Brothers + folk music + New York City + winter” pretty much sums me up. Like, if I was going to write myself a Tinder bio or something (I’m not), that could easily be it. Those four things, together, is the most ideal combination for me. Ideally. So I waited for months and followed the news and waited some more and listened to the soundtrack on loop for a few weeks before going to see the film. And I wasn’t disappointed. But I wasn’t blown away. But I am, I think, comforted by that. It’s not a perfect movie. But it’s really, really good. And there’s a thing with a cat, hence, this review’s title.

Inside Llewyn Davis takes place over the course of a few days in New York City (with a touch of Chicago) in 1961. It’s winter, and it is soaking wet. This is the wettest movie the Coen brothers have ever made, wetter than Fargo, which is a pristine and snowy white compared to Llewyn Davis cold, gray, sooty city. But both movies are equally as weather-beaten; the characters are constantly fighting with the weather, which contributes to the already testy nature of their relationships and reinforces that some battles, you just aren’t going to win. This is Llewyn Davis’s problem. He’s not going to win. He’s not going to be a famous folk singer. He’s bound to play in smoky underground clubs in Greenwich Village until, well, until he just can’t anymore.

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Llewyn is played with scruff, sad eyes, and a foul mouth by Oscar Isaac, a musician/actor/great dude. Okay, not quite sure about the last one, but he seems pretty cool. Isaac is a moving singer and is great as Llewyn, a curmudgeonly, stubborn “artist” who plays “real” music and won’t just “exist,” as he yells at his sister, and do things like get a day job or have a place to live. Instead, he hauls his guitar between “friends’” couches, mostly people who have already tolerated him for some time and couldn’t suddenly stop tolerating him without it getting awkward. Llewyn is sort of generic this way. We all have that friend who won’t get a job for fear of “selling out,” and self-sabotages his/her chances for success, and it’s frustrating. This aspect of Llewyn’s struggle seems tired, or at least makes me tired. It is the one, maybe, minorly disappointing thing about the movie, though I haven’t decided yet.

Among Llewyn’s “friends” are the Gorfeins, an older couple who live on the Upper West Side and have an extra bed and an orange cat that obnoxiously intrudes on Llewyn’s sulking in a significant way. He alternates nights at the Gorfeins with time at Jim and Jean’s (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan), fellow folk singers who’ve had some success. Carey Mulligan is funny in a very Coen brothers way. She’s on the brink of caricature, but the way her mouth moves and the looks her eyes give keep her firmly human.

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At one point, Llewyn stumbles his way to Chicago, hitching a ride with a nearly silent Garrett Hedlund, who plays “valet” to Roland Turner (John Goodman), an almost tongue-in-cheek exaggeration of John Goodman characters in other Coen brothers films. It is a delightfully strange interlude, a mini odyssey for Llewyn and for us, one that ends at the Gate of Horn club. Here, Llewyn is given the chance to play something for Bud Grossman (a precise and biting F. Murray Abraham), a big time manager.

The structure of the film illuminates and defines Llewyn’s troubles so clearly and brilliantly. It adds to character in such a comprehensive way, and that is something new and refreshing and truly impressive. Inside Llewyn Davis is at first a seemingly straighter film for the Coen brothers. Llewyn is more a simple, honest human portrait and less a collection of symbols and heightened emotions, as many Coen characters are. The movie overall is less slapstick-y than some others with fewer clear “quirks.” But it is actually just as funny and poignant as ever. It is a movie about music, and in addition to the songs, the “music” of life, some of the everyday sounds that happen, and Llewyn’s reactions to them, are among the strongest and funniest moments of the film. Not to mention, the soundtrack is phenomenal.

And the cat’s name is Ulysses.

Grade: A

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