There’s a type of folk song called a “circle game,” one that tells a story that wends its way around and winds up back where it started. (“There’s a Hole in My Bucket” is a famous example.)
In the same way that Joel and Ethan Coen looked to the Book of Job for inspiration in their story about a 20th century devout Jew in “A Serious Man,” they’ve turned “Inside Llewyn Davis,” a dark comedy set in the world of JFK-era folk music, into its own circle game. The title character might be on a downward spiral, but in this story, he’s merely circling the drain, staying at the same level even though he’s clearly lost his footing.
Folk singer Llewyn (Oscar Isaac, “Drive”) is having a rough go of it on the hootenanny circuit: he’s trying to break out as a solo act after minor success as half of a duo, and he favors dark material that doesn’t make the espresso-swilling hipsters in his basement audiences sing along. (“I don’t see a lot of money here,” notes one impresario after hearing Llewyn audition.)
He’s working his way through the couches and the nerves of all of his friends in 1961 New York City, lugging around the cat that ran out of one friend’s crashpad and trying to scrape together the money to pay for an abortion for Jean (Carey Mulligan), who isn’t even sure if Llewyn is the father. (Jean and her husband Jim, played by Justin Timberlake, are the kind of clean-cut, photogenic folkies who have the mass appeal that Llewyn lacks.)
As with “A Serious Man,” not a whole lot happens in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” but within the mind and soul of its hero, everything is falling apart. Will he look up an old girlfriend? Will he ditch music entirely and go back to the Merchant Marines? Will he finally get an apartment of his own? The fixes for what’s ailing Llewyn aren’t easy ones, and the Coens once again offer us a character who behaves less like a pawn on an audience-friendly path to redemption and self-actualization and more like a complicated human being.
Isaac, who’s half-Guatemalan and half-Cuban but playing half-Welsh and half-Italian, is thoroughly riveting throughout; it’s not easy to portray a performer who’s both great and not what people want to hear, but he shows us all of Llewyn’s best and worst qualities. Both Mulligan and Timberlake, who can be hit-and-miss as screen performers, are terrific, as are Garrett Hedlund and John Goodman as Llewyn’s travel companions. Hedlund plays a cool cat named “Johnny Five,” leaving us to wonder if the Coens intentionally named him after the robot in the “Short Circuit” movies, or if they didn’t know, or if they don’t care.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” gets its milieu just right, from cold-water flats to the West Side digs of bohemian academics (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett — the Coens repurpose familiar character actors as well as anyone this side of Charlie Kaufman or Ryan Murphy), but there’s never a sense of fawning, things-were-so-much-better-then-man nostalgia that often surfaces in films like this.
While there’s some great music to be heard here (T Bone Burnett produced the soundtrack), we also get “Please Mr. Kennedy,” an awful novelty song penned by Timberlake’s character that might be the best intentionally awful movie ditty since Paul Williams’ tunes for “Ishtar.”
This isn’t the cute, accessible period piece that some audiences might be expecting, but the Coens once again prove that their seemingly random and chaotic chord progressions lead somewhere wonderful.