© The Financial Times Ltd 2016 FT and 'Financial Times' are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd.
January 23, 2014 6:10 pm
Inside Llewyn Davis is a Coen brothers charmer about . . . almost absolutely nothing you could pin down as a substantive subject. That is its charm; that and a sense of place and time that lends a poetic glow to wryly fugitive plotting. This delectable days-in-the-life – or daze-in-the-life – tale of a struggling Welsh-born New York folk singer (played by Cuban-Guatemalan-born rookie star and folkie Oscar Isaac) is their best film since No Country for Old Men. It is also, I suspect, a homage to two of the filmmakers’ obsessive ur-texts, The Odyssey, which inspired O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and Joyce’s Ulysses.
Old adage: if you want to borrow, borrow from the best. On the rough seas of the early 1960s Manhattan music scene sails dark-bearded, drifting Llewyn. His mission is to find a home, a job and perhaps a Penelope – the snappish singer ex-girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) on whom he still sponges will no longer do – and his only companion is a ginger cat called, yes, Ulysses. The cat gets locked out from a crash-pad Llewyn is leaving; the cat befriends him and then gets lost; when Llewyn tries to return a fake (wrong gender) the ex-hosts have a hissy fit. “Where’s its scrotum, Llewyn?”
From Joyce we get the benighted, benighting glamour of the big city. Not just New York, a dark, de-centred place seeking a new buzz, where even Greenwich Village dives have not yet been consecrated by Bob Dylan. (That happens in the last scene.) Llewyn also journeys to Chicago to meet a fateful agent (F. Murray Abraham). He travels in the limo of a fat singer afflicted with elephantiasis of the ego: picture an inflated Burl Ives, magisterially scripted, and cast – who else in a Coens film? – John Goodman.
The cat steals the film, though, and I like his taste. There’s a lot worth stealing. That includes Justin Timberlake taking his own Mickey with a Peter, Paul, Mary-style song; a mastery of errant subplots; a Celtic air of dark whimsy; and Isaac himself, bringing a sweetly dazed charm so downbeat you almost have to get down on the floor to catch its rhythm.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.