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Burn After Listening

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Alison Rosa/Studiocanal

Revisiting the struggling-artist archetype 22 years after “Barton Fink,” Joel and Ethan Coen this time place him squarely in the 1960s East Village folk scene instead of 1940s Hollywood. For all but two scenes (in fact, it’s an early scene that recurs toward the end), “Inside Llewyn Davis” has this time eschewed the noir for which the writing-directing brothers are best known and assumes the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”-type odyssey.

Oscar Isaac gets a star-making turn as the eponymous musician, a mainstay at the Gaslight club. To the Coens’ credit, they’ve opted for a sober-eyed depiction of that ’60s folk scene rather than revering, romanticizing or mythmaking. Llewyn is signed to a fly-by-night record label, barely scrapes by sitting in for recording sessions as a last-minute replacement and couch-surfs every night.

He is also evidently a douche — while crashing with the husband-and-wife duo Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake), Llewyn fools around with Jean, she gets pregnant and he then tries to borrow money from Jim for her abortion. Llewyn hitchhikes to Chicago in hopes of securing professional management, but can’t be bothered to make a stop in Akron, Ohio, to visit an ex and their 2-year-old child. We learn not so subtly that success has eluded Llewyn, who lacks that mass-appeal wholesome appearance; but not the angel-faced Jean, even though she sleeps her way to landing the next gig. The T Bone Burnett-produced soundtrack certainly reinforces the notion that Llewyn’s failure has more to do with the absence of meritocracy than want of talent.

The Coens have always had this nagging tendency to be condescending toward their characters; but they’ve dialed it down quite a bit on Llewyn, to the point that he seems sympathetic by comparison to the obligatory oddballs (John Goodman et al) that populate the cast. Still, after enjoying nearly three decades of enormous critical and commercial goodwill, the Coens come off as completely disingenuous when they explicate the struggles of an artist largely by blaming the system.


Opens on Dec. 6 in the United States and on Jan. 24, 2014 in Britain.

Written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; director of photography, Bruno Delbonnel; edited by Roderick Jaynes; production design by Jess Gonchor; costumes by Mary Zophres; produced by Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; released by CBS Films (United States) and Studiocanal (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Oscar Isaac (Llewyn Davis), Carey Mulligan (Jean), John Goodman (Roland Turner), Garrett Hedlund (Johnny Five), F. Murray Abraham (Bud Grossman), Justin Timberlake (Jim), Robin Bartlett (Lillian Gorfein), Ethan Phillips (Mitch Gorfein), Stark Sands (Troy Nelson), Adam Driver (Al Cody) and Jeanine Serralles (Joy).


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