The tale of a talented but prickly musician trying to make it on the pre-Bob Dylan folk scene in wintry 1961 New York, the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis is deftly observed, touchingly melancholy and slyly funny.
As Oscar Isaac’s eponymous Llewyn stumbles from one mishap to another over the course of a week, couch-surfing at the homes of friends (including folk duo Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake) and repeatedly failing to get a break wherever he performs his mournful songs, the Coens rein in their usual snark to deliver a surprisingly affecting portrait of a struggling artist.
There’s less satire than you’d expect, too, although the hilariously dotty novelty song penned by Timberlake’s character, ‘Please Mr Kennedy’, will leave you smiling and humming. Indeed, the music – supervised by T Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford – is pitch perfect throughout. But so are the performances, from John Goodman’s sneering junkie jazzman and Adam Driver’s goofy urban cowboy to Mulligan’s furiously sour, vitriol-spitting folkie. (The straying ginger cat whose fate becomes entwined with Llewyn is, however, the film’s biggest scene-stealer.)
Llewyn is so stubbornly independent, so wilfully self-sabotaging, so downright cussed that you feel he can’t possibly win your sympathy, but somehow, almost imperceptibly, as he scuffles and scrambles on the margins of success, Isaac and the Coens ensure that he gets under your skin.
Certificate 15. Runtime 105 mins. Director Joel Coen, Ethan Coen.