“Inside Llewyn Davis,” Joel and Ethan Coen’s backhanded tribute to the early 60s flowering of folk music in Greenwich Village, comes to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center this weekend. In sloe-eyed Llewyn Davis, played by Oscar Isaac, the Coen brothers have added yet another unlovable but compelling loser to the gallery of misfits that people their films.
Nominated for three Golden Globes, “Inside Llewyn Davis” captures the days when the music was soft, melodic, and often laced with social commentary. Greenwich Village was the happening place for aspiring musicians and hangers-on. Drawing on a memoir by folksinger Dave Van Ronk, the Coen brothers take their snapshot of the folkie era and drain it of sentimentality. What’s left is a sardonic vision of what the folk music era was like. It’s a world that could not be farther from Disney’s Magic Kingdom or today’s cartoon-based superhero fantasies. Llewyn has plenty of talent, but he also has a knack for making bad decisions, alienating the very people who might help him find his way to success and fulfillment. He’s a man heading as fast as he can away from fame and success.
The film opens with Llewyn establishing his creds by singing the first of many songs about loss and farewell, and we learn that he is the surviving member of a male duo, the other half of which committed suicide. As is the case with the New Orleans-based HBO series “Treme,” music makes for the magic in this movie. The songs we hear from Llewyn have a sweetness and purity that even the Coen’s heavy reliance on gallows humor and irony can’t entirely sour. Llewyn shines when he sings and plays his guitar, as do the other performers featured in the movie.
The narrative structure of “Inside Llewyn Davis” relies on an episodic series of set pieces taken from Llewyn’s journey through life. A vagabond, Llewyn first heads to the apartment of a music duo, Jean and Jim, played by Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake. With no particular place to call home, Llewyn is angling to crash with these friends. But Jean is none too happy to see Llewyn, since she believes he’s gotten her pregnant. What led to their liaison or why Jim might not have been the one who impregnated her is never explained; it’s just a page marker in the catalogue of Llewyn’s many offhanded mistakes.
He finds temporary quarters uptown with an academic couple that dotes on him like a son. The filmmakers don’t let us get too comfortable with this temporary sanctuary, though, and Llewyn manages to let the couple’s beloved cat escape from their apartment. The images of Llewyn carrying the orange tabby around Manhattan make a quintessential Coen brothers stylistic statement –– quirky, and ultimately absurdist.
One encounter after another leads to a disappointing dead end. When he hooks a ride to Chicago with a drug-addicted jazz musician, played by John Goodman, the man sarcastically informs him his singing partner should have jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, not the George Washington Bridge. Llewyn plays a song for his ex-mariner father in a nursing home, but the man appears too dementia-ridden to appreciate it.
As annoying as Llewyn’s behavior is, the melancholy in his eyes and his inability to connect with the people in his life come to haunt the viewer. His compulsion to self-destruct may be infuriating, but this sad and lonely man has something genuine to share about the hard knocks life delivers. Why do we care what happens to this latter-day folk singer? “Inside Llewyn Davis” seems to suggest the American obsession with success and its emphasis on commerce can poison the soul. Loser that he may be, Llewyn makes beautiful music, and he does manage to get his friends’ cat back home.
“Inside Llewyn Davis,” Friday, Jan. 10 and Saturday, Jan. 11, 7:30 pm; Sunday, Jan. 12, 4 pm, M.V. Film Center, Vineyard Haven. $12; $9 M.V. Film Society members; $7 ages 14 and under.