[Screen It]


(2013) (Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan) (R)

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Dramedy: A down-on-his-luck, early 1960s era singer tries to make a living performing folk songs, all while dealing with an interesting array of people in his life.
It's 1961 and Llewyn Davis (OSCAR ISAAC) is a folk singer who routinely performs for small crowds at a Greenwich Village joint, the Gaslight Cafe, run by Pappi Corsicato (MAX CASELLA). Llewyn was once part of a folk music duo, but with his former partner now out of the picture, he's having a hard time selling records through his manager, Mel Novikoff (JERRY GRAYSON).

To make matters worse, fellow folk singer Jean (CAREY MULLIGAN) has angrily informed him that she's pregnant, but she doesn't know if that's by him or another singer who she's now seeing, Jim (JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE). And with yet another singer, Army grunt Troy Nelson (STARK SANDS) briefly staying at their place, Llewyn needs another place to crash.

Sometimes he stays with his Upper West Side professor friend, Mitch Gorfein (ETHAN PHILLIPS), and his wife, Lillian (ROBIN BARTLETT), and at others he crashes with his sister, Joy (JEANINE SERRALLES). Desperate for money, he'll take any gig he can get, even if that involves making a goofy record about JFK sending astronauts into space, something he records with Jim and Al Cody (ADAM DRIVER).

Hoping things might be better elsewhere, Llewyn hitches a ride with the larger than life Roland Turner (JOHN GOODMAN) and his mysterious driver, Johnny Five (GARRETT HEDLUND) to Chicago. Yet, Llewyn's prickly nature does him no favors despite his obvious talent performing folk music.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
While you might find a person who doesn't like watching TV, going to the movies or even reading books, it's most unusual to find someone who doesn't appreciate some genre of music. And that's probably because it's ingrained in us from our primitive days of storytelling when crude musical notes added a special touch to imparting news, wisdom or just entertainment to others.

For yours truly, I love music across most every genre, mainly because it has the power to touch our hearts and souls as much as our minds. Alas, my moments of racing out with my toy guitar to accompany the opening of "The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour" on TV many, many moons ago didn't pan out into any sort of musical ability, let alone a career. I can pluck out some notes on a guitar and do some one-finger "magic" on a piano, but that's about it.

After some time of being green with envy regarding those born with the gift of being able to play music or who obtained it through hard practice, I now appreciate such talent whenever and wherever I see or hear it. Yet, I also understand that for those with such abilities, they often face the next level of frustration, namely that of making a living playing music. For every successful performer or musician, there are multitudes of others whose talent will never be witnessed beyond family, friends and maybe the local bar where they occasionally get a gig.

That frustration afflicts the title character and then some in "Inside Llewyn Davis," Ethan Coen and Joel Coen's companion piece of sorts to their earlier "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Whereas that film featured period-specific folk music representative of 1930s Appalachia, this new offering focuses on New York's Greenwich Village folk music scene of the 1960s (think Bob Dylan before adopting the electric guitar).

When we first meet Llewyn, he's doing a soulful rendition of "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me" in front of a small crowd in a bar where he apparently often plies his trade. The lyrics are indicative of his journey and current state of mind: "Hang me, oh hang me, I'll be dead and gone. I wouldn't mind the hanging, But the layin' in a grave, poor boy, I been all around this world."

Once part of a promising folk music duo but now on his own, he's the poster child of being a struggling artist. He's talented, but doesn't make enough to have his own place and thus alternates between crashing with a well-to-do friend (Ethan Phillips), a sister (Jeanine Serralles) and erstwhile girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) who really wants nothing to do with him. And much of that stems from his prickly demeanor that does him no favors in getting the big break he thinks he deserves.

As written by the brotherly filmmaking duo, that's really it for the plot. There are a number of other characters (including Justin Timberlake doing a funny but never mean portrayal of an upbeat folk singer) and even a bizarre subplot where our title character hitches a ride with a larger than life drug addict (John Goodman) and his mostly silent, James Dean-esque driver (Garrett Hedlund).

Accordingly, and maybe to the frustration of some viewers, the pic never really goes anywhere and actually ends up circling back around upon itself. But that's part of the film's thematic thrust -- that some such talented people end up only going in circles in both their professional and personal lives. Thankfully, Oscar Isaac creates such a fascinatingly flawed character (through a performance that not only should be his breakout role, but also could earn him an outside shot of an Oscar nomination in a really crowded field this year) that you don't mind going along for the ride, even if it doesn't ultimately take him or the viewer anywhere.

That is, except into an examination of such folks, not to mention the folk music scene of the early '60s. If you appreciate such sounds from that era, you'll love the various tunes that permeate the flick's 100+ minute runtime. And filled with the usual sort of quirky material the Coen Brothers often infuse into their works, along with terrific cinematography, this latest offering is more than easy enough to sit through.

And while you might have the immediate reaction of "That's it?" when the end credits start to roll and you realize the negligible plot never really went anywhere, this is one of those pics that might just grow on you hours or days after seeing it. "Inside Llewyn Davis" and its loving but cautionary tale has done that for me, while also leaving me somewhat reassured that my lack of musical talent didn't result in a similar "I got nowhere" journey. The film rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 11, 2013 / Posted December 20, 2013

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