No love at the Oscars for the Coen Brothers’ latest, but Inside Llewyn Davis frames one of the strongest showcase performances of recent years, says MacDara Conroy Has Hollywood fallen out of love with the Coen Brothers? Once they were the darlings of the Tinseltown cognoscenti, virtually guaranteed a spot in the annual Academy Awards nominations. Yet Joel and Ethan’s latest film is notably absent from the shortlists for any of the major gongs in 2014. Not that it’s never happened before – even 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? got no love for its fantastic music direction – but the Coens’ run of form at the Oscars since 2007’s No Country For Old Men ends right here with Inside Llewyn Davis, their tribute to the New York folk scene of the early 1960s which, with bitter irony, frames one of the strongest showcase performances of recent years.

Inside Llewyn Davis marks the Coens’ second collaboration with musical director T Bone Burnett since his score for O Brother, and its story shares vague similarity with that film’s mythological narrative. But while the earlier work is quite plainly a take on Homer’s Odyssey, their latest is another step removed, a peripatetic story very loosely inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s also a veiled tribute to one of the original folk troubadours, Dave Van Ronk, whose legacy was obscured in the dust kicked up by Bob Dylan.

Oscar Isaac plays the titular character, a down-on-his-luck Greenwich Village folkie whose passionate playing – fuelled by the suicide of his musical partner – contrasts with his crabby attitude to the people in his life, such as harmony duo Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan), and older academics and fans the Gorfeins. The story follows Llewyn as he bounces from couch to couch, hitting up friends and family for money he’s not getting in royalties from non-existent record sales, and abusing everyone’s indulgences in his behaviour. It’s a routine that takes on a new urgency when he lets the Gorfeins’ cat escape from their apartment. As Llewyn alternately carries and chases the ginger moggy across the city, the cat turns out to be the catalyst (I see what they did there) that shakes him up from his predicament, and makes him confront the mistakes he’s made to get to that point.

With such a bare-bones plot, it’s all about the characters – and as the eponymous Llewyn, first-time lead Isaac really shines in the spotlight. Defying the cliché of the troubled singer-songwriter, he’s an asshole, but a loveable one, whose more positive traits show through his bristling exterior; it’s not hard to see why his friends put up with his crap. It’s a demanding performance, too, as not only is Isaac the fulcrum of virtually every scene, he’s also the film’s musical backbone, his soulful solo performances conveying so much more than any umpteen lines of dialogue. 

It helps, not that he needs it, that the Coens surround him with a strong supporting cast that’s essentially a series of cameos. Kudos to Justin Timberlake who fits his part well, proving he’s got a real knack for these sideman gigs. Carey Mulligan is as magnetic as ever despite her disappointingly shrewish role as the sweet-but-sour Jean, tearing into her lines with relish. And neat turns from F Murray Abraham and the great Ethan Phillips (of Star Trek: Voyager and a million other things you’ve never seen) add warmth to offset the wintry vibe.

Not everything about the film works: an unsettling detour to Chicago in the company of addled jazz man Roland Turner (Coen Brothers regular John Goodman) and his laid-back beatnik handler (Garrett Hedlund) kills the momentum, even if what happens along the way makes sense in the greater scheme of things; and there are some ill-judged inclusions, such as the Gomer Pyle-ish singing soldier who’s too close to Jack McBrayer’s southern simpleton on 30 Rock for my liking. But those are minor concerns compared to the best moments, most of which involve just Isaac, his voice and guitar against the darkness. All credit to the Coens for letting T Bone and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel work their magic here. No credit at all to the Academy for ignoring both the music (the nomination for ‘best sound’ is no consolation) and Isaac’s breakout turn in the lead role. The latter omission is simply inexcusable.

Inside Llewyn Davis opens nationwide on 24th January

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