Melancholy Odyssey Through the Folk Scene


If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song,” Llewyn Davis says, brandishing his guitar during a set at the Gaslight. That’s a pretty good definition, one that certainly applies to “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” the chestnut that opens “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Joel and Ethan Coen’s intoxicating ramble through Greenwich Village in 1961, before the neighborhood was annexed by New York University and Starbucks.

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Oscar Isaac in “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

Llewyn’s repertoire and some aspects of his background are borrowed from Dave Van Ronk, who loomed large on the New York folk scene in its pre-Bob Dylan hootenanny-and-autoharp phase. Oscar Isaac, who plays both Llewyn and the guitar with offhand virtuosity, is slighter of build and scowlier of mien than Van Ronk, with a fine, clear tenor singing voice. But in any case, this is not a biopic, it’s a Coen brothers movie, which is to say a brilliant magpie’s nest of surrealism, period detail and pop-culture scholarship. To put it another way, it’s a folk tale.

The story — a wobbly, circular journey to nowhere in particular and back, with stops in Chicago, Queens and the Upper West Side — is nearly as old as narrative itself. An important character is named Ulysses, whose ancient wanderings inspired “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” the Coens’ earlier venture (also in the company of the music supervisor T Bone Burnett) into American vernacular musical traditions. The loneliness and romance of the traveling life are echoed in the ballads, sea chanteys and blues reveries that Llewyn and his fellow chirpers like to sing. The lyrics palpitate with the pain of loss and leave-taking: “I’m 500 miles from my home”; “I’ve been all around this world”; “Fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well.” Llewyn, still grieving over the death of his musical partner (heard singing in the voice of Marcus Mumford), is a bit more prosaically adrift, stumbling from one friend’s couch to another, wearing out his welcome faster than his shoes.

But if Llewyn is an archetype, he is also a familiar kind of Coen antihero, the latest face in the gallery of losers, deadbeats and hapless strivers the brothers have been assembling, over 16 features, for nearly 30 years. These dudes are usually at the mercy of other people, a hostile universe and their own stupidity. Above all, they are the playthings of a pair of cruel and capricious fraternal deities whose affection for their creatures is often indistinguishable from contempt.

Unlike Barton Fink, Llewyn is a genuinely talented artist. Unlike Larry Gopnik in “A Serious Man,” he is not merely the innocent, passive victim of cosmic, domestic and professional malpractice. He is, to some extent, the author of his own fate. “You’re like King Midas’s idiot brother,” says Jean (Carey Mulligan), a fellow folk singer whose nest Llewyn has fouled, offering a precise and scatological explanation of just what she means.

The catalog of Llewyn’s lapses is extensive and fills the spectrum from casual bad manners to epic jerkiness. He makes the hostess (Robin Bartlett) cry at a dinner party in Morningside Heights, swears in front of his young nephew in Queens, heckles other acts at the Gaslight and has a habit of getting women pregnant, including Jean, who is romantically and harmonically attached to a singer named Jim (Justin Timberlake). The only misdeed that seems to trouble Llewyn’s conscience at all is letting an orange cat escape from an apartment where he’s crashing. It’s almost as if he thinks that rescuing the animal will make up for everything else he has done.

Llewyn is a fairly unpleasant guy, though the other inhabitants of his world are not much better. The nice ones — a couple of tall, affable singers (Stark Sands and Adam Driver, suggesting Tom Paxton and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott), a kindly Columbia sociologist (Ethan Phillips) and the unsuspecting Jim — serve as targets for his sarcasm. The rest are mostly a parade of grotesques, including music promoters, union officials and an imperious, drug-addicted jazzman (John Goodman) whose company Llewyn must endure on a long car trip.

(Please read the rest at the NYT link above.)