Writers: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake
Running Time: 104 mins
The Lowdown: The Coen Brothers hit all the right notes in this heartfelt and occasionally hilarious homage to the 1960’s New York folk scene, which deservedly won the Grand Prix at last years’ Cannes Film Festival. Oscar Isaac shines as the eponymous musician with pitch-perfect back-up from Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake and an elusive ginger tomcat. Step inside for a rich, rewarding experience. Aran jumpers are optional.
The Verdict: The accessibility of the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre tends to divide even their most die-hard fans. Their last non-adapted film, A Serious Man, had many ill-versed with the Talmud and Jewish lore scratching their Yamaka-less heads in frustration.
Fortunately, no in-depth knowledge of folk music is necessary to appreciate this funny, moving, (mostly) fictional snapshot of Greenwich Village captured just before Bob Dylan kicks the Sixties off.
Handsome, heavy-lidded Oscar Isaac (Drive, Robin Hood) is captivating in a complex role that should finally solidify his status as a credible leading man. Battling through the biting cold of the Big Apple, cradling an escaped cat that may belong to his long-suffering acquaintances he cuts a soulful, solitary figure.
Llewyn is not a loveable creation. On the surface, he’s a sofa-surfing leech, reliant on the financial support of friends and fellow musicians. He’s incapable of the emotional maturity to deal with the serious implications of his actions but Isaac never plays him as completely obdurate or unsympathetic. He’s a man so fixed on the present and dogged by the past that the future and its consequences are almost inconceivable to him.
Once half of a popular but unsuccessful duo, Llewyn is now struggling as a solo artist. His album isn’t selling, yet he sabotages every opportunity for commercial success. When asked to play a track for club owner and entrepreneur Bud Grossman (F Murray Abraham) he chooses The Death Of Queen Jane; a plaintive lament for Henry VIII’s third wife Jane Seymour. It’s hauntingly beautiful, but hardly unit shifting.
Around Isaac the Coens have assembled a stellar supporting cast; Carey Mulligan is incandescent as a Mary Travers style folk songstress whose tryst with Llewyn has possibly left her carrying more than his battered guitar case. Her vitriolic performance is tempered by a buoyant, bearded Justin Timberlake as her on and offstage partner Jim.
Coen regular John Goodman once again casts a malevolent shadow as an acerbic, pimp- sticked Jazz musician with whom Llewyn hitches a ride. His goading of Davis is blackly comic but also provides the most revealing insights into the folk singer’s character.
Equally impressive are the T-Bone Burnett produced tunes. Burnett was once a member of Bob Dylan’s touring band and a collaborator on The Big Lebowski and O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtracks. Most of the songs are performed live and the cast, aided by an unseen Marcus Mumford are superb. Timberlake in particular, successfully swaps his trademark falsetto for a mellow bass.
Those bemoaning the Coen’s lack of narrative cohesion may not be satisfied by the opaque denouement, but leaving Llewyn with more questions than answers encourages repeat viewing to delve deeper inside the singer’s psyche.
A subtle in-joke has Llewyn missing out on an important musical experience; make sure you don’t do the same.