I will readily grant that the Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan) do not keep making the same movie over and over. And for recurrent aspects, John Goodman and Frances McDormand are laudable choices (only he is in the 2013 “Inside Llewyn Davis”, which is unlike any other movies made by anyone, maybe closest to the 2003 Christopher Guest mockumentary “A Mighty Wind”).
Amidst the variety of settings and themes, the Coens have made some movies I mostly like (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, True Grit) and others I abhor (Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Man Who Wasn’t There, The Ladykillers, A Serious Man). “Inside Llewyn Davis” I don’t abhor but can muster little enthusiasm, though I think the movie is about as good as it could be with its focus on a failing or failed folk musician crashing on various people’s couches in 1961 NYC.
In the title role (supposedly the product of a Welsh father and a Brazilian mother), (Guatemala-born with a Cuban father) Oscar Isaac (Drive) is very good. He has talent, just not enough to make a success. It doesn’t help that his musical partner, Mike Timlin, jumped off the George Washington Bridge (not even the right bridge for suicides: shoulda been the Brooklyn Bridge Lleweyn is told).
As the wife or girlfriend of the kindly Jim (Justin Timberlake in a small role), Carey Mulligan (as Jean) shows that she can sing, as well as produce invective at a machine-gun pace ad Llewelyn, who may have impregnated her and has something of an open account with an abortionist whose services she will use (when abortion was illegal).
John Goodman is a very nasty seemingly narcoleptic jazz musician, Roland Turner, with whom Llewelyn drives to Chicago to try to get booked by impresario Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) who candidly (painfully) assesses Llewlyn’s marketability. Garrett Hedlund (less impressive than in “On the Road,” not to mention remaining fully clothed) plays a Beat poet, Johnny Five, who is driving Turner to Chicago.
Lleweyln goes to Chicago and tries to ship out in the merchant marines, but he ain’t going nowhere. Indeed, the structure of the movie is circular, which is good in concept but means that too much of the movie consists of the same two songs being performed in the Gaslight (a folk bar in Greenwich Village).
The Oscar-nominated cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (Amélie, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) did not draw particular attention to itself, but was good. (The Coen’s usual cinematographer, Roger Deakins was tied up on a James Bond movie).
I was underwhelmed by the movie., though not bored or infuriated by it. I thought that , though Oscar Isaac was good in his role as a sponger of middling talent, a movie about Roland Turner (Goodman) might be more interesting, though there have been other movies about drug-dependent jazz musicians. Or about Jean (Mulligan). (And I missed McDormand having at least a cameo.)
The 41-making-of featurette has a lot of music and discussion of the music by music producer T. Bone Burnett and the singing actors. Delbonnel confirms that the sequence that includes the movie poster image as inspired by the cover of “the 1963 The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” album. The whole movie is set just before the emergence of Dylan.