Inside MacDougal Street

An evocative, if fragmented look at 1960s Greenwich Village in latest from Coen brothers

A couple of troubadour cats.

A couple of troubadour cats.

Inside Llewyn Davis Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake and John Goodman. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Pageant Theatre. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

The new Coen brothers movie scored only a pair of Oscar nominations (cinematography and sound-mixing), but Inside Llewyn Davis had multiple awards from film festivals and critics groups, and it more or less swept the National Society of Film Critics awards—best picture, best direction, best cinematography and best actor.

From where I sit, and now that we’ve finally been able to see the film locally, I can confirm that this is indeed one of the most impressive productions of the year just past. But I’m a little puzzled over Oscar’s neglect on the one hand and the NSFC raves on the other. To my lights, it’s not the best of the year, but it’s certainly among the best of the year.

I hesitate to give it top marks mostly on account of its staying a little too much outside its title character. At the same time, however, I give it special credit for its diligence and resourcefulness in suggesting character insights while staying resolutely focused on exterior events. It’s partly a kind of triangulation—our picture of Llewyn Davis derives less from him personally and more from the revealing fragments of recognition that arise via the assortment of characters and incidents he encounters in the course of the story.

The story itself is fragmentary—a few rather fraught and scattered days in the life of a not quite successful (and more or less homeless) folk singer in New York’s Greenwich Village circa 1960. Musical performances (mostly in the era’s coffeehouses) are interspersed with a disparate array of lively scenes—Davis trying to get some money from his agent; arranging an abortion for a pissed-off lover (Carey Mulligan); barely surviving a road trip with a corpulent junkie (John Goodman) and his Neal Cassady-like driver (Garrett Hedlund); having a strange and troubling rest-home visit with his father; enduring a sepulchral audition/interview with a legendary Chicago impresario (F. Murray Abraham), racing to keep pace for a madcap scene in a recording studio with straight-arrow Jim (Justin Timberlake) and off-the-wall hipster Al Cody (Adam Driver).

There are a couple of seriocomic episodes with an errant cat and a couple more with the feline’s liberal/academic owners (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett). And there are brief, telling encounters with a soldier/folk singer (Stark Sands), a moon-faced abortionist (Steve Routman), a libidinous club owner named Pappi Corsicato (Max Casella), and Davis’ resolutely middle-class sister Joy (Jeanine Serralles). At the start and again at the finish, there’s a painful and somewhat dream-like encounter with a tall, angry man wearing black. In between episodes, we get whiffs of despair over the suicide of Llewyn’s former musical partner.

For me, the cat, the recording session, the road trip, the simperingly permissive academic couple, the cramped stairways and apartments, the solemn and attentive audiences at the coffeehouses, and the soldier/folk singer are the best of it. It’s chock-full of resonant detail, and at its best it’s a pungent evocation of the part of the 1960s that preceded and helped bring about what is now known as “The Sixties.”