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★★★★✩

Inside Llewyn Davis

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, and Justin Timberlake

Rated R

Now playing

Inside Llewyn Davis focuses on the life of a young folk singer in Greenwich Village during 1961. But the titular Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is extremely unlikable. He is a homeless travelling musician, dependent on his successful friends who allow him to sleep on their couches. Yet he believes it is his right to lecture them on selling out. At times he’s so cruel that I couldn’t help feeling repulsed by his narcissism and neediness.

The film does tease at his comically tragic life that caused his attitude. For example, he signs away his royalties on a song likely to become a hit to get money to pay for marine union dues, only to find out that he needs more money for a pilot’s license. Repeat misfortunes ad infinitum.

But the thing that truly redeems him is his music. His beautiful voice and the mournful tunes paint a picture of a man whose been shaken up by the times. He’s so talented and persistent that I began to believe he deserved my sympathy because he’s a genius who truly deserves recognition he is unlikely to ever earn. Throughout the film, the songs are the only touches of elegance in Davis’ life. Without auto-tune, the music has this sense of gritty realness about it that makes me wistful for a time I never knew (and probably never existed).

In essence, Inside Llweyln Davis is story with more style than substance. The film’s dark, monochromatic colors underline the grimness of the time. Whenever the music stops, all the characters are forced back into their difficult, mundane lives, without the embellishment of their songs. Some characters regress to shrill stereotypes, while others simply seem like punch lines for the Coen brothers to reinforce their themes about the randomness of life.

There isn’t much of a plot, just a test of how awful a man can be and still be sympathetic. Luckily Llewyn Davis is fully dimensional. Thanks to Oscar Isaac’s expressiveness and amazing voice, the film succeeds at holding our attention.

Inside Llewlyn Davis is a good, but not great movie. It’s one without a lesson, but not devoid of hope or hilarious comic irony. It’s the kind of pensive movie that you really need to watch intently to enjoy, as distractions will keep you from feeling the subtler emotions throughout the movie. But if you can’t muster the energy to watch the entire movie, at least make sure you listen to the hauntingly beautiful soundtrack (especially “Fare Thee Well”).