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‘Llewyn Davis’ paints intriguing portrait of caustic folk singer

1/2/2014 - West Side Leader
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By Craig Marks

Oscar Isaac and Justin Timberlake share a scene in “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
Photo courtesy of CBS Films
Be nice to those you meet on the way up because you might meet them on the way down. Also, be nice to those you meet when you’re going nowhere.

The latest movie by Joel and Ethan Coen, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” is a fascinating portrait of an artist stuck in neutral. The career of folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is going nowhere, and it’s not helped by the fact that he is, by all evidence presented, a jerk. It’s the second recent movie set in 1961 that’s music filled and is about creative types whose unpleasantness rivals their talents. If only the fictional Davis and P.L. Travers, the creator of “Mary Poppins,” could slip out of their respective movie screens and meet. They might find themselves soulmates.

But whereas “Saving Mr. Banks” has moments where the sun shines through (the “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” scene, for example), the dark clouds never leave “Llewyn Davis.” Davis, brilliantly played by Isaac, has that unfortunate gift of always making the wrong decision, a talent usually reserved for the truly cursed or members of the Cleveland Browns brain trust. Bad things happen to good people — but not just to good people, the movie reminds us.

It is the pre-British-Invasion 1960s, and the folk scene is thriving in Greenwich Village. But Davis is not. Without an apartment or even a winter coat — but with lots of unsold copies of his solo record — he crashes on the couches of those he hasn’t completely alienated. It’s an ever-shrinking group and may no longer include Jean (Carey Mulligan), a sweet-singing folk artist who has teamed up — both professionally and romantically — with Jim (Justin Timberlake). To succeed in the music business, Jean and Jim have made the kind of compromises Davis abhors, though Davis’ right to the moral high ground is debatable.

As in the Coen brothers’ remake of “True Grit,” a long trek paves the way for deeper understanding of some of the characters. Davis joins an old New Orleans jazz musician, Roland Turner (John Goodman), on a car trip to Chicago, and nerves become frayed. In a movie with great supporting performances — Mulligan and Timberlake are both superb — it’s Goodman’s that is the most memorable. A veteran of Coen brothers films, Goodman gives Turner the right air of mystery as a man whose dulcet voice hides dark secrets. He says the most disturbing things in the smoothest ways.

Davis says disturbing things in disturbing ways, and it’s only when he opens his mouth to sing that we see there’s beauty inside him. He has a thing for cats, or maybe cats have a thing for him, but humankind fails him, not that he doesn’t fail humankind, as well, in sometimes shocking ways. The man has skeletons in his closet, even if he doesn’t have a closet.

The movie, currently in theaters, is rated R for language, including some sexual references.

Three and 1/2 stars (out of four)

 

Craig Marks is a cartoonist and editorial, sports and entertainment writer for the West Side Leader.

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