The new Coen brothers' movie, "Inside Llewyn Davis," is partly a slice of the folk music scene that peaked in the 1960s with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. The slice is Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), an aspiring singer and songwriter, and the people (and occasional cats) in his circle of travel.
Llewyn has been in the scene long enough to see his former partner jump off the George Washington Bridge. Be forewarned: His story isn't exactly encouraging. It isn't meant to be. The filmmakers are making a few thinly veiled statements and, while Llewyn's peripatetic but brief adventure offers some quirky characters and funny dialogue, it's kind of a downer, and an opaque one at that. You aren't going to walk away roused, despite a soundtrack featuring Jack White.
The film opens and closes with Llewyn searching: for a place to stay, for gigs, for money. He's a typical starving artist, with a record deal but no sales, shows to play but at the same old places, and friends who've grown tired of putting him up. His sister (Jeanine Serralles) thinks he finally should quit all this professional music nonsense and go back into the merchant marine where he can earn a decent living. Before the film ends, after it's journeyed to Chicago and back, the thought crosses Llewyn's mind as well.
"Inside Llewyn Davis" certainly isn't Christopher Guest's "A Mighty Wind," although the folk revival scene is satirized to a degree. The movement isn't just peaking but wrapping up, so the film acknowledges that there are crusty, longtime participants such as Llewyn, whose talent springs from familial roots, and there also are bandwagoners, Johnny-come-latelys, sometimes in terrible cable-knit sweaters, who just want to cut a record with MCA in whatever watered-down style is popular.
The subtle grain in this finely lensed portrait is that some of those phonies are making it while Llewyn isn't. The even more subtle point is that Llewyn's talent, and maybe talent in general, is the worst thing to hang a musty scarf on. Judging from the examples presented, from Llewyn's best friends Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake) to a brief glimpse of Dylan, we're meant to consider that you can either sell out for a little bit of fame or change the course of history for a lot of it. What you can't do, unfortunately, is be Llewyn. As great with a guitar and song as he is, he's merely really good at something. Like Eddie Murphy once said, you're either lucky or you're a bum. Or you're Bob Dylan.
Such a message, delivered so obtusely, doesn't by itself make great entertainment. To compensate, the Coens have sprinkled in some witty situational comedy and a soundtrack full of American roots music both old and new. There are even two adorable cats and one goateed John Goodman, sporting two silver-tipped walking canes and spouting jazzy riffs of dialogue from the back seat of a large period coupe like the hip grandfather of Walter Sobchak from "The Big Lebowski."
But these Coen trademarks won't carry the impatient filmgoer all the way. There's a reason for the literal blue pall cast over this story and its cinematography, why every ray of light ultimately disappears into darkness. So too can hope, eventually, for those of us blessed only with talent, and not the luck or genius to realize the imaginings of our ambition. (R) 105 min. S