Sympathetic, relatable characters help boost a film, but they aren't found among the bright young things with guitars in Inside Llewyn Davis. That includes the title character (Oscar Isaac), an erstwhile member of a folk-music duo who is taking a swing at a solo career.
If ambience were all that counted, the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen would be judged an unqualified success.
The film presents Greenwich Village as it was in 1961: a haven for aspiring folk singers. The makers of Fargo and True Grit evoke the era to the last album cover and V-neck sweater.
Unfortunately, a film can’t thrive on solid production and costume design alone.
Sympathetic, relatable characters help boost a film, but they aren’t found among the bright young things with guitars in Inside Llewyn Davis.
That includes the title character (Oscar Isaac), an erstwhile member of a folk-music duo who is taking a swing at a solo career.
The going is tough: He is managed by an unreliable agent and has accommodations thanks only to the beneficence of friends.
Equally challenging are Llewyn’s relationships. He has an affair with folk singer Jean (an effectively contentious Carey Mulligan). And a former significant other lives with their child — whom Llewyn has never seen — in faraway Akron.
We should want Llewyn to make the big time and to straighten out his life.
Llewyn, though, is a mean-spirited wastrel. At various points, he heckles an eager but untalented amateur singer and leaves an acquaintance by the side of an empty road.
There is truth in Jean’s observation that Llewyn seems to care more for the independent-minded tabby cat he has taken under his wing than for people.
His concern for the cat is depicted in an amusing series of scenes of Llewyn racing after the animal as it maneuvers through alleys. But something seems wrong with a film in which the most appealing character — and the one we most look forward to seeing — has four legs.
Maybe viewers could cotton to Llewyn if he at least seemed to take pleasure in his trade, but he doesn’t.
Perhaps Llewyn’s haplessness is meant to be touching. But, as the film winds down, our interest has waned because of the maundering, nebulous plot and the unsympathetic nature of Llewyn and those who surround him — including Jean’s dim spouse, Jim (Justin Timberlake), and bumptious jazz musician Roland (John Goodman).
At one point, Llewyn auditions for music-club owner Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). Although his performance of The Death of Queen Jane is among the film’s best, the episode ends up being another fiasco.
Unmoved, Grossman offers a comically forthright opinion: “I don’t see a lot of money here.”
Or, it turns out, a lot of heart.