Fraternal filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen are a perverse pair. When the rest of Hollywood struggles to create protagonists who will win the sympathy and understanding of audiences, the Coens never hesitate to construct their narratives around an unlikable jerk.
Inside Llewyn Davis's title character may be the most disagreeable, self-important Coen hero since Barton Fink. Indeed, this new film could almost be a companion piece to that 1991 predecessor, given that both films are about judgmental, success-seeking artists obliged to do a little soul-searching when they run smack into potentially career-ending crises.
Barton's mythologizing milieu was the Hollywood motion picture. Llewyn's is folk music, specifically the vivid folk scene of Greenwich Village in the '60s.
We find Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) in a self-destructive loop. The film opens with him being punched out by a stranger after completing a set in a dark Manhattan coffeehouse circa 1961.
From there, he arises from his usual nocturnal abode -- a friend's couch -- and meets the day, trying to line up either a gig, cadging a meal or securing the next night's sleeping arrangement.
Bob Dylan once observed: "To live outside the law, you must be honest." To live inside the folk music scene, Llewyn feels no such compunction.
Thus he faces the smoking wrath of fellow folksinger Jean (Carey Mulligan), when she announces she is pregnant -- and he may or may not be the father. Later, Llewyn will accept the invitation to record a potentially lucrative novelty song with Jean's partner Jim (Justin Timberlake), who is blithely unaware he has been cuckolded.
Ambition calls and Llewyn heads out on the road to an audition in Chicago, hitching a ride with jazz musician Roland Turner (a magnificently malevolent John Goodman), who proves to be hilariously arrogant about the superiority of jazz over folk.
"In jazz," he declares as he pokes Llewyn with his cane, "We play all the notes."
If the Coens seem to be mocking, they kid because they love. They once built an entire movie -- O Brother, Where Art Thou? -- on the foundation of traditional Depression-era folk music. With a soundtrack likewise produced by T-Bone Burnett, Llewyn Davis functions as a bitter love letter to the folkie.
For his part, Isaac holds up his end, contributing a few soulful performances, pointedly suggesting an entertainer who deliberately saves the best of himself for the performance venue.
Therein lies the film's delicious central irony. Llewyn sings with a purity and clarity of purpose he lost long ago.