What's the difference between Llewyn Davis and Bob Dylan? This is the question that is implied from the very first moment of Joel and Ethan Coen's new film, Inside Llewyn Davis, as its star Oscar Isaac sings a mournful folk tune, "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me," for a spellbound Greenwich Village audience in the early 1960s. And it is a question that is asked outright in its final scene as Bob Dylan's "Farewell" puts an unsatisfying bow on a meandering, aimless week in its protagonist's life. Everyone seems to have a hypothesis.
Llewyn himself would probably blame his manager, Mel (Jerry Grayson), who is disorganized and maybe senile and as a result can't seem to send his record to the right people. Mel and heavy-hitting producer Bud Grossman, for whom Llewyn auditions in the late stages of the film, would probably blame it on a few missing intangibles. Llewyn lacks the stage presence. He misses his singing partner, who committed suicide some months prior by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. Something like that.
Jean (Carey Mulligan), the only person in his life who can pass for a love interest, would probably just say he's an asshole. In fact, that's exactly what she does every chance she gets, a consequence of their affair and her subsequent impregnation all while she is dating one of his friends, Jim (Justin Timberlake). She wouldn't be wrong necessarily. Besides being the type of person who would sleep with a friend's girlfriend, Llewyn is dour and surly for a freeloader, managing to surf from couch to couch even though he's not a particularly gracious or grateful houseguest.
Llewyn's sister Joy (Jeanine Serralles) would say it's because there isn't any money in folk music for anyone but Dylan. The heroin-addicted jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman) that Llewyn ends up riding to Chicago with would probably agree, throwing in some blather and bluster about folk singers being "squares."
Point is, everyone has an answer, but none of them seem to fully explain why Llewyn seems doomed to obscurity. They all feel incomplete because pure talent doesn't seem to be a part of what's holding him back. Isaac sings beautifully -- soulfully -- as Davis. He is unequivocally pleasant to listen to.
The Coen brothers, for their part, don't seem to be trying to answer this question either, and that's quite all right. Perhaps more than any of their films, Inside Llewyn Davis is about art -- about the at-times irreconcilable push-pull between staying true to yourself as an artist and trying not to go through life cold, tired and miserable.
To accomplish commercial success without selling out, you need the primordial soup -- all the right ingredients for success -- but you also need the thunderbolt, that jolt of electricity ultimately required to give the soup life. That one or the other or both doesn't come to Llewyn makes this quite an angsty affair. As angst goes, though, this is as enjoyable as it gets.
There's the music of course. This is the Coen brothers' most musically influenced film, which seems obvious given the subject matter and the production chops of T Bone Burnett on the soundtrack, but isn't when you consider that they also put O Brother, Where Art Thou out in to the universe. There's their trademark dark and dry humor to complement what is otherwise a musical drama. And there are the usual terrific cameos, in this instance from the likes of Goodman, Abraham and Girls' Adam Driver.
But, perhaps more than most of the brothers' other films, Inside Llewyn Davis is about its leading man. Isaac sings wonderfully. (Yes, that's really him crooning.) He keeps Llewyn's seemingly perpetual frustration right where it should be, bubbling just below the surface most of the time, boiling over exactly when it has to. He does this for what amounts to the entirety of the film. There's barely a moment when he's not on screen. More importantly, there isn't a single moment when you don't feel fully immersed in his cold, gray existence.
That's quite an achievement for the relatively anonymous Isaac, a designation he'll have to give up now that the Coen brothers have bestowed upon him their Midas Touch.