Oscar Isaac stars as the title character, a folk singer in and around NY’s Greenwich Village scene in the early 60s (Pre-Bob Dylan, so it’s really just about to take off). Llewyn, who isn’t easy to like, is clearly struggling in his pursuit of his dream. He relies on friends and acquaintances to let him sleep on their couch, as he has no real home of his own. His agent is pretty ineffectual, his musical partner has recently killed himself, his sister doesn’t ‘get’ him, his dad is in a nursing home, and he seems to have had a thing with fellow musician Carey Mulligan, only now she’s reluctant to let him crash at her place or even really speak to him. She’s pregnant and can’t be sure whether it’s his or not, thus she’s pretty pissed off and wants Llewyn to pay for an abortion. He has also found out that he has a child he never knew about from a previous relationship. We follow his adventures during one week in his life, meeting all kinds of people and doggedly determined to make it as a solo folk artist. Adam Driver plays another folk musician, ditto a very ‘square’ Justin Timberlake, whilst John Goodman plays a rather ornery jazz guy and junkie whom Llewyn travels with on his way to Chicago for an audition. F. Murray Abraham plays the jaded guy in Chicago he’s hoping to audition for. Max Casella and Ethan Phillips play, respectively, a friend and guy whose couch Llewyn sleeps on sometimes (and whose cat he loses and spends much of the film trying to find).
I’m not normally one to praise The Coen Brothers films as you probably know by now. I’ve disliked (“Raising Arizona”, “Fargo”, “The Hudsucker Proxy”, “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, “Burn After Reading”, “The Ladykillers” to name just a few) far more than I’ve enjoyed (“Blood Simple”, “Intolerable Cruelty”, “The Big Lebowski”, and “True Grit”), let alone those ones falling somewhere awkwardly in between (“No Country for Old Men”, “Miller’s Crossing”). However, this 2013 film about the folk music scene in the early 60s is a pretty easy watch I must say. It’s one of their better films for sure.
I’m not much of a fan of folk music to be honest (I can appreciate some of the greats, but my 60s-70s tastes are mostly Beatles, Stones, CCR, Joe Cocker, Black Sabbath and Hendrix), but Oscar Isaac makes a pretty good account of himself both in terms of singing and especially acting. He seems more like the writer/poet-type to me more than a singer, but he’s undeniably good in the lead. However, I think the positively incandescent Carey Mulligan (who was born to play a folk singer I think) and a very cranky (and very funny) John Goodman threaten to steal the show. Goodman is hilarious as the crankiest old windbag you’ll ever come across. I do worry about him though, dude’s looking all latter-day Orson Welles these days isn’t he? He’s a terrific character actor, so I hope he’s looking after himself. Justin Timberlake in a dorky jumper screams of stunt casting to me, but he and an inexplicable Adam Driver (in a scene that reminds me of The Coens at their most irritatingly affected and weird) aren’t in the film enough to really distract or detract. F. Murray Abraham turns up briefly and gives his best performance in the last what, two decades maybe? At least. Helluva talent, worst person at choosing scripts in the entire film industry. Ultimately, though, I think Isaac owns this film, it’s probably his best performance to date. He, like the film itself grows on you.
There’s also some really nice shot composition and shadowy lighting by Bruno Delbonnel (“Amelie”, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”, “Dark Shadows”), too and he was rightly nominated for an Oscar. My one and only quibble with the whole film is that a pretty significant issue is brought up fairly early about Isaac…and then never referred to again. It feels like it was going somewhere, and to be honest I think it really should have been dealt with or never mentioned at all. As is, it sticks out awkwardly and leaves you wondering why it was included. The film overall doesn’t really have that much plot, so it may not bother you as much as it did me that this one story strand turned out to not really be much of a strand at all.
If you like folk music and/or The Coen Brothers, you’ll be in love with this one, and you’ll certainly want the soundtrack. This is one of The Coen’s best and most ‘normal’ films to date (though decidedly unromantic about its subject matter), probably ahead of “Intolerable Cruelty”, but behind the others I listed above as their best films.