The Coen brothers have made a film loosely structured after Homer's The Odyssey that largely draws on the texture of an iconic time and place for American music. T Bone Burnett has produced the soundtrack. John Goodman shows up for awhile in the middle to mouth off and cause trouble. Does this sound familiar? It should. It is a description of the Coen's O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a film that came out 13 years ago, and also a description of Inside Llewyn Davis, a film that opens this month.
Despite the superficial resemblances between the idea of O Brother and Llewyn Davis, they are as different as Blood Simple and Raising Arizona. The high camp and fantastical farce that defined the performances in O Brother have been almost entirely replaced by a moody realism that resembles the depressing performances in A Serious Man. The most daring, surprising difference, though, is that while O Brother is a movie defined by truly great music, the cream of the crop of Delta Blues, Inside Llewyn Davis is about musicians that are only pretty good and, at times, awful.
Llewyn Davis, played with brilliantly morose charm by Oscar Isaac, is a folk singer in a neighborhood that's about to be the global epicenter of folk music — early '60s Greenwich Village — and launch the careers of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and others. His odyssey is put in motion by that classic problem of trying to find a cheap place to crash in New York City. (In that way, it shares a plot with one of 2013's other best films, Frances Ha.) If he could just get a good manager, he could make a buck and end the journey.
The film opens with him singing a haunting, smooth version of the traditional "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me," and never hits another song quite that beautiful again. That's no accident. Llewyn and his (secret) lover Jean, played by Carey Mulligan, and the rest of their scene are struggling. Mostly because they just aren't good enough.
In that way, this is one of the more honest stories to be told about a music scene. Most of the musicians are cornballs or sycophants or hacks. The money is bad. The problems are many. Those that have a little talent have it the worst, because they know what it means to not have enough.
Ethan and Joel Coen have few peers working in film today. You'd be hard-pressed to think of names that have written and directed multiple films that are arguably among the best of the decade for each of the past three decades, while also somehow navigating the line between critical and commercial success. Which is not to say that their careers have been flawless. One of the defining features of the Coens' work has been the flaws, their willingness to take risks, make mistakes, and to keep repeating the things that work in different ways. Take the story of a provincial crime gone wrong, an idea they've successfully reinvented numerous times with Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and Fargo. When they make a dud such as the neo-screwball comedy Intolerable Cruelty, they're usually the first to wash their hands of it and move on. With Inside Llewyn Davis they've proven they can play the musical chord twice.