The Coen brothers switch gears so often and with such gleeful finesse that their restlessness can no longer qualify as genre-hopping pastiche, if it ever did. At this point they’re simply a style unto themselves, a self-sufficient duo with a built in audience, art-house cred, and, when they want to indulge, box-office potential. Inside Llewyn Davis, then, isn’t a curveball so much as another stopover on a now-two-decade-plus journey that’s taken on noir, slapstick, thriller, western, and everything in between. It’s also one of their strongest recent efforts, an alternately world-weary and hilarious ode to a period of relatively recent vintage that’s nonetheless cherished as an era of new ideas, free-thinking, and artistic progression.
The folk scene that emanated from New York’s Greenwich Village neighborhood in the late ’60s is particularly prone to nostalgia, and not just from those who lived through it, but also for those of a younger generation who retain a bit of the ideology that fueled the nascent movement. Oscar Isaac, in the title role, bleeds such effortless essence: His mix of ambling aloofness, self-deprecation, obstinate irony, and unconscious charm is endearing in ways that many a Coen character has resonated. As he wanders from New York City to Chicago searching for a record deal that will finally take him off the troubadour circuit, Llewyn crosses paths with a bevy of oddball personalities, from John Goodman’s heroine-addled orator to F. Murray Abraham’s skeptical producer to Garret Hedlund’s stoic chauffeur. As they’ve made a habit of, the Coens fill out the film with a great selection of character actors and juicy cameos, including a wonderful, fleeting turn from Justin Timberlake as Llewyn’s rival performer.
What’s particularly interesting about this film, and it’s a theme that has coursed through the brothers’ career from the start, is that Llewyn doesn’t mature or change much at all though his travels, trails, and tribulation. When we meet him he’s a bitter, somewhat entitled singer-songwriter, and when we leave him he’s mostly the same, though perhaps more resigned to his fate than a struggling musician should probably admit. Not even impregnating his ex-girlfriend (Carey Mulligan, in a fantastic and unexpected comedic turn) raises much of fuss inside Llewyn, who’d probably rather be miserable with a girl who despises him than go out of his way to meet anyone new. The Coens don’t offer a structured narrative in any typical sense, instead following Llewyn as he makes mistakes (he spends a good portion of the film chasing after a lost cat named Ulysses, raising an obvious parallel between himself and James Joyce’s quintessential vagabond), burns bridges, and alienates everyone that supports him. In other words, he’s a classic Coen antihero, and he stands alongside A Serious Man’s Larry Gopnick and The Man Who Wasn’t There’s Ed Crane as fascinating, unsettled, yearning characters searching for answers which may never arrive.
With its reverent mix of vintage tunes, period-perfect threads, and Ulysses-nodding non-narrative, Inside Llewyn Davis can play at times as a kind of companion piece to O Brother, Where Art Thou? But whereas the comedy played slightly broad in that Southern chain-gang tale, Inside Llewyn Davis’s humor is sharper, more incisive, and more thematically relevant—not to mention funnier. In fact, this may be the Coens’ funniest film since The Big Lebowski, a film which trafficked in yet another, completely different type of humor, speaking again to the brothers’ broad writing talents. Befitting it’s title character, Inside Llewyn Davis is a modest, unassuming film, but one with enough latent charm and unique personality to standout even amidst a career of such wild diversions.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 15—26.