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.