With the exception of “The Ladykillers,” every Coen Brothers movie is watchable. Even the not-so-good ones, like “O Brother, Where Art Thou” or “Intolerable Cruelty.” Their style is so unique, their worldview so perfectly skewed, it’s hard not to look away. Aside from the setting (the early ’60s folk music scene in New York), “Inside Llewyn Davis” lacks a lot of the Coens’ trademark oddities.
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a struggling folk singer, unable to afford a place to live in or a winter coat to wear. He used to be part of an act, but now he’s striking out as a solo performer. If it weren’t for the rotating group of friends who let him sleep on their couch, he’d be homeless.
That’s about all there is to “Inside Llewyn Davis.” The film just doesn’t go anywhere. Even a road trip to Chicago featuring John Goodman doesn’t lead to anything. Llewyn himself just shuffles along, treating his friends and family, including Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake, like garbage while trying to borrow money from them. He’s miserable. Aside from his musical talent, there isn’t a whole lot to like about Llewyn, let alone spend two hours in a movie theater with.
The Coen Brothers seem to really struggle when they move into “musical” territory. “O Brother, Where Art Thou” focused too much on the music and “Llewyn Davis” has the same problem. At least “O Brother” had a story. The only interesting aspect of “Llewyn” is the question of when Llewyn should give up his dream and time to hang ’em up. Llewyn struggles and struggles, barely gets any gigs, but won’t give up on his dream. It’s admirable, but one thing the film refuses to address is why can’t he get some kind of job during the day to make some money? He doesn’t spend time writing songs, or anything of real note. Everything he does just leads to nothing.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is made with the trademark craft that’s to be expected from the Coens, but it just doesn’t go anywhere. Nothing pays off. Like Llewyn Davis himself, it just wanders around, trying to find its big break only to see it was never there in the first place.