Okay, so it may only be a “musical” in the eyes of the Hollywood Foreign Press, but even the “bad” music is great in Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers’ tuneful, bittersweet study of a deeply talented failure amid the 1960s folk scene. As is their wont, the Coens lay on the dry satire as they turn the likes of Hedy West’s “Five Hundred Miles” into an impossibly earnest sham, set in stark contrast to the rich and raw poetry of the titular artist’s (Oscar Isaac) soul-bearers. But, as arranged by incomparable music producer T Bone Burnett, and as performed by co-stars Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, and Stark Sands, the West cover still sounds gorgeous in all its tongue-in-cheek squareness, and it’s one of many songs that could humble Les Misérables in regard to the “novelty” of singing live on film. Isaac’s tracks, which are each flawlessly sung in scenes that operate as sober, angelic interludes to the film’s irony, are, unfortunately, all covers as well, leaving them ineligible for Original Song consideration (it would have been swell to hear Isaac croon traditional ballads like “Dink’s Song” or “The Death of Queen Jane” on the Oscar stage, but that won’t be the case). The only eligible track appears to be “Please Please Mr. Kennedy,” a political parody song penned by Burnett, Timberlake, the Coens, Ed Rush, and George Cromarty, and performed by Timberlake, Isaac, and a quasi-beatboxing Adam Driver. The song is deliberately un-soulful, but it’s an absolute hoot, and it has a good shot here if only because voters will want to squeeze in some music from the film.
What they won’t be squeezing in, it seems, is a nod for Original Score, as Inside Llewyn Davis’s background music is all part of Burnett’s seamless folk-and-classical tapestry, with the aforementioned new arrangements accompanying compositions from Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and more (if there’s one person who serves as evidence that music producers and supervisors deserve their own Oscar category, it’s Burnett). But the film does stand a legitimate chance in the Sound Mixing category, which is known to be as generous to musically-inclined movies as it is to effects extravaganzas (Gravity will be a lock in this race, among many others). The only other musical on the horizon is Black Nativity, which, despite its superficial alignment with this year’s black-awards-bait narrative, doesn’t seem to have any more prestige than Burlesque or Joyful Noise.
On the visual front, it seems highly unlikely that Bruno Delbonnel will be passed over in the Cinematography field, as the look of Inside Llewyn Davis is unlike that of any other film this year. Speaking at the New York Film Festival in a post-screening Q&A, Joel and Ethan Coen noted that they initially planned to shoot this movie in black and white, and given the aesthetic they wound up with, one almost shudders at the thought. The high-contrast light and shadow Delbonnel employs for smoky, low-rent venues is just the beginning of his singularly ethereal lensing, which seems to leave every object’s edge feathered, and soften the feel of a palette that is, by any definition, predominantly harsh and cold. A three-time Oscar nominee (for Amélie, A Very Long Engagement, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), Delbonnel includes abundant compositions that highlight the oft-crammed nature of a poor New Yorker’s life (particularly when it comes to narrowly accessible apartments), and his overall color scheme aids in pulling you into the period. The same goes for the absurdly detailed art direction and set decoration of Deborah Jensen and Susan Bode, respectively, who go so far as to include caricature portraits of Llewyn’s vain, cigar-smoking agent, mounted on the wall of the man’s richly detailed office.
For the Coens themselves, this doesn’t look like it’s necessarily their year, particularly in the areas of Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, or Best Editing (for which they share credit, as usual, under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes). That the two are bona fide Academy favorites puts them instantly in contention, but, as directors alone, they have a tougher-than-usual hill to climb this season, with sure things like Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuarón standing out in front. And, all things considered, despite its infectious, largely graceful nature, Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t quite have the mythic wonder found in the Coens’ best work, and some of its scripted comedy is alarmingly broad, which feels especially out of character. Best Picture recognition, on the other hand, seems entirely within reach, and with Scott Rudin lighting fires under asses, no awards pundit should count the Coens’ latest out of the big race. The greatest hope moving forward is that the marvelous Oscar Isaac, a Juilliard-trained virtuoso who finally gets the starring role he’s deserved for years, gains his rightful place in the Best Actor lineup. Isaac has the unfortunate burden of being part of a jam-packed, competitive talent pool, but he’s as deserving as—if not more deserving than—any of the men being touted as locks, including Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) and Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Blub). His name doesn’t hurt either.
Surest bets: Best Picture; Best Original Song; Best Sound Mixing; Best Cinematography.
Possibilities: Best Director, Joel and Ethan Coen; Best Actor, Oscar Isaac; Best Original Screenplay; Best Editing; Best Art Direction; Best Costume Design.
Shouldn’t be Overlooked: Best Supporting Actor, John Goodman.