Traversing the basket houses and back alleys of the early 1960s pre-Dylan Greenwich Village music scene, Inside Llewyn Davis is the Coen Brothers' ode to the fuzzy line separating artistic purity from creative recalcitrance. Driven by a melodious period soundtrack, the film is part O Brother, Where Art Thou? and part Barton Fink, but with a brooding tone that envelopes its humorous flourishes.
For the uninitiated, part of the film's fun is connecting its fictionalized characters to such real-life inspirations as Tom Paxton, Doc Pomus, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Peter, Paul and Mary. The title figure is inspired by Village legend Dave Van Ronk, who once released an album called Inside Dave Van Ronk and, like Llewyn, clung to folk forms rather than more mainstream or "marketable" deviations. "I thought you said you were a musician," growls an unimpressed jazz player (John Goodman).
Llewyn's also a hard person to like, whether he's sleeping with his friend's wife (Carey Mulligan) or disdaining a share of royalties to a novelty song that he considers beneath him. While Inside Llewyn Davis looks and sounds gorgeous, its message is as enigmatic as its surly protagonist. A quick glimpse of a certain rising star taking the Gaslight Cafe stage suggests that perhaps Llewyn's troubles are a consequence of the man, not his music. —Neil Morris
This article appeared in print with the headline "Big small films."