Things aren't going well for the folk singing hero of Joel and Ethan Coen's "Inside Llewyn Davis." He's lost his musical partner, and his solo album, which bears the same title as this movie, flopped. But he won't quit. "And what," he says, "just exist?"
That retort neatly sums up the tension between chasing youthful dreams and facing hard facts that runs through the Coens' tender, bittersweet "Inside Llewyn Davis." Set against the booming music scene of New York's GreenwichVillage in 1961, it opens with our hero, played by a terrific Oscar Isaac ("Drive"), performing the traditional song "Hang Me" at the Gaslight Cafe. His sweet, sensitive rendition has the crowd rapt -- so why isn't he famous? Broke and increasingly angry, Davis hitches a ride to Chicago to audition at the famed nightclub The Gate of Horn. It could be his moment of truth.
This being a Coen Brothers movie, strange characters flicker in and out, some zany (Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver perform a novelty song called "Please, Mr. Kennedy"), some menacing (Carey Mulligan is nastiness incarnate as Davis' ex-girlfriend, Jean). And as always, there is a confrontation with God, this one a music impresario named Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham, expressionless and marvelously expressive). But "Inside Llewyn Davis" lacks the Coens' trademark mockery. Davis is deeply flawed, but our heart is always with him (Isaac gives him just enough bravery to balance out his pettiness), and the Coens place him in world that can be cold but not entirely cruel.
Inspired by the unfinished memoir of the late folk singer Dave Van Ronk, "Inside Llewyn Davis" unfolds during one of pop history's most beloved moments: post-jazz, pre-Beatles. The filmmakers re-create this smoky, brick-wall milieu with great care (many names and places have real-life analogues), and Bruno Delbonnel's almost black-and-white cinematography captures it beautifully. But you don't need to be a baby boomer to feel the movie's chords resonate. All you need, somewhere in your past, are dreams.
PLOT In the West Village in 1961, an obscure folk singer struggles for recognition.
CAST Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake
BOTTOM LINE The Coen brothers' latest is one of their best, a bittersweet rumination on creative ambition and youthful dreams.