Movie review: Sweet sounds, sour saga in 'Llewyn Davis'

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It's the unkindest cut of all. "I don't see a lotta money here."

That's what a music mogul tells a performer whose odyssey includes an ill-fated stop for a single-song audition that could make or break him. It's not that the artist lacks talent or is a slacker.

But success and failure can be fickle, as we learn in life and while watching "Inside Llewyn Davis." Joel and Ethan Coen don't follow the traditional arc where we track hopefuls from obscurity to fame with a crisis or two along the way.

'Inside Llewyn Davis'

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake.

Rating: R for language including some sexual references.

"Inside Llewyn Davis" takes some of its inspiration from musician Dave Van Ronk (1936-2002), but the Coens created a fictional story about a folk singer in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s before Bob Dylan's arrival.

This is where Llewyn Davis, portrayed by a bearded, curly haired Oscar Isaac, is introduced, singing a traditional folk song in a voice rich with sincerity, yearning and the sort of emotion missing from his interactions with other people. He connects through his songs, but when the microphone goes silent, so does that tether.

Llewyn Davis has thorny relationships with women and is homeless and broke, surfing from one friend's couch to another. Even his sister in Queens asks if he could return to the Merchant Marine.

Jean (Carey Mulligan), married to clean-cut singer Jim (Justin Timberlake) with his V-neck sweaters and neatly styled hair, tells him he's "like King Midas' idiot brother" and everything he touches turns to ... well, it's a four-letter word, but it's definitely not gold. She has a particular reason to be upset with him.

"Inside Llewyn Davis" follows the title character through a week's journey in which he encounters friends, family, strangers and one fleet-footed cat belonging to supportive, if boring, academics who are unfailingly hospitable to him. The story comes full circle and ends with a sign that a new era is at hand.

Mr. Isaac, a Juilliard graduate who does his own singing and guitar playing live (meaning no lip-syncing or later additions), has a tender, soulful voice complementing his hangdog look. He calls this a concert film and when the focus is on New York and the music, it shines; when it takes to the road with oddballs -- almost silent driver Garrett Hedlund and dismissive jazz man John Goodman -- it bucks and slows.

The movie is bookended by "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me" by Mr. Isaac, who also lends a poignancy to the traditional English ballad "The Death of Queen Jane," about a pregnant woman and her baby. He joins Marcus Mumford on "Fare Thee Well (Dink's Song)" with its lyrics, "One of these mornings, it won't be long, You'll call my name and I'll be gone ... If I had wings like Nora's dove, I'd fly up the river to the one I love."

No one hires Mr. Timberlake for a music film and keeps him away from the microphone and he delivers on "Five Hundred Miles," "The Auld Triangle" and a novelty song about the space race, "Please Mr. Kennedy," a riff on a Vietnam-era tune.

Most of the selections are haunting, heartbreaking and pure in presentation and placement, thanks to executive music producer T Bone Burnett. Those familiar with the music scene of the late 1950s and early '60s will find insider references, such as a character named Bud Grossman, a nod to Albert Grossman, who created Peter, Paul and Mary and managed Bob Dylan.

Mr. Isaac deserves the awards attention he's receiving, for his mastery of the music and what he has called "a mask of melancholy."

However, "Inside Llewyn Davis" provides only a glimpse of Llewyn's life outside this worst week ever; you crave more of what came before and will come after. He is often so unsympathetic or battered by circumstance and misfortune that it's difficult to embrace him or the movie, no matter how sweet the sounds.

Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: or 412-263-1632. Read her blog:

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