It’s taken Oscar Isaac a fair old while to get to top billing, having shone in a number of roles, including in Drive, and survived the obligatory backwards steps (like with W.E.) but it has fallen to the Coens to throw him his big opportunity in their return to directing following the regrettable association with Gambit (it was of course only the script they took charge of.)
In Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac plays the titular hero, a loosely adapted version of the folk musician Dave Van Ronk, whose memoir “The Mayor Of MacDougal Street” gives the Coens a lot of their narrative frame. Set over two weeks in 1961, the film portrays New York’s folk-rock scene of the period, specifically focusing on the life and work at the time of Dylan-lite singer-songwriter Llewyn Davis, as he aims to make it on the scene and bounces from one friends sofa to the next.
This is a curiously atypical affair for the Coens – yes, we have the usual flourishes, and the typically excellent cast, featuring Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund and Justin Timberlake, fresh from chart success with his latest album, but this is a far less plot-centric affair than we’re used to. It’s very obviously a return to niche film-making for the Coens, with strong focus on musical performances – an extrapolation of their obvious fondness for music in other films – and it’s hard to resist the feeling that it is a conscious effort to rail against the blockbuster success of True Grit.
The Coens have been to Cannes before – like Jim Jarmusch, who also plays in competition, they’ve had a number of films on the Croisette (starting way back with Raising Arizona) – and there appears to have been a conscious effort to finish the film in time for a slot here, though this is no rushed final product. That is thanks to a leisurely and tight editing process, which extended post-production by some distance, and made this a curiously unhyped Coens project.
The film is thoughtful and evocative, just as the directorial duo’s other period offerings, and to call it a low key affair, packed with charm is not to do the film any disservice. It’s also absolutely hilarious, and once more the Coens prove how skilled they are at drawing laughs from the least likely of situations, thanks to an incredible script. The cast is smartly chosen, Isaac in particular, who wears his artistic agenda well, and they are matched by an incredibly good soundtrack, put together under the guidance of the legendary T-Bone Burnett (who has worked with the Coens several times before.)
This is star-making stuff for Isaac, but he’s not the only good thing about the cast – Justin Timberlake is great, especially in the musical performance of “Please, Mr Kennedy” with Isaac and Adam Driver’s hilarious Al Cody; Carey Mulligan is pleasantly venomous and Garrett Hedlund is about as close to James Dean levels of cool as is possible. And as ever, John Goodman steals the entire film, despite his sparse screen-time.
Cannes won’t award this film anything, because it’s the Coens and they don’t need the help, but that shouldn’t be taken as a reflection of its quality by any means.
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