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posted: 12/19/2013 5:45 AM

'Inside' a quest crammed with comic Coenesque quirkiness

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  • Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), left, and Jim (Justin Timberlake) take to the recording studio in the Coen brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis."

    Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), left, and Jim (Justin Timberlake) take to the recording studio in the Coen brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis."

  • Video: "Inside Llewyn Davis" trailer


Oscar Isaac plays the title character in Joel and Ethan Coen's new movie "Inside Llewyn Davis," and his performance bleeds with strained empathy and mysterious reserve.

There's a strong hint of a restless young Al Pacino lurking within Issac's character, whose puppy-dog eyes pool with lulling charisma. Yet, his Llewyn Davis proves to be an enigmatic, undecipherable soul, a discontented man wandering through an unfocused existence crammed with comic Coenesque quirkiness.

"Inside Llewyn Davis" takes place in 1961 at the time of New York's Greenwich Village folk music scene.

There, the coatless Llewyn (pronounced "Lou-In"), with guitar in tow, makes the rounds attempting to find work as a folk singer. His rejections are as harsh and cold as the frigid New York winter around him.

We soon discover that Llewyn had a promising recording career with a partner who has committed suicide by plunging off the Washington Bridge.

Llewyn has no money, mounting debts and has been crashing at friends' apartments. His affair with a quietly foxy singer Jean (Carey Mulligan), married to his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake), has resulted in pregnancy. At least she says so.

Now, Llewyn needs even more money, for an abortion.

Then the cat escapes. The one belonging to the Gorfeins, the couple letting Llewyn stay for a while at their apartment. The feline slips out the door -- which closes and locks behind Llewyn, who doesn't have a key -- and the ensuing chase propels the singer on another classic Coen quest, one that takes Llewyn to a Chicago nightclub and other places while searching for work, and maybe something else.

To get to Chicago, Llewyn catches a ride with a drug addict and wheezy philosophical raconteur (familiar Coen collaborator John Goodman) along with his laconic driver/bodyguard/pal (Garrett Hedlund). At the Gate of Horn in Chicago, Llewyn meets his ultimate musical judge and jury in F. Murray Abraham's intimidating owner, and the harsh encounter suggests the singer could actually be defending his life.

After all, the movie does open with Llewyn being beaten up in a New York alley. (The scene was inspired by an anecdote in Dave Von Ronk's book "The Mayor of MacDougal Street," prompting the Coens to wonder, "Why would someone want to beat up a folk singer?" a question that led to them writing this screenplay.)

The nuanced settings, the props, the cars and the production design recapture the early 1960s so well, you almost think the filmmakers used a time machine for all the heavy background lifting. (Credit to production designer Jess Gonchor and costumer Mary Zophres.)

Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel infuses each frame with dreamy textures of a bygone period and, when appropriate, a "Fargo"-like chill that hangs in the air.

Of course, the music plays a big role in "Inside Llewyn Davis," set at the dusk of the beatnik era right before Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Soaring '60s took off. Coen collaborator T Bone Burnett supplies the movie's soundtrack with folk standards that might make you want to snap your fingers in appreciation.

Still, I wanted to like, even love, "Inside Llewyn Davis" a little more than I did.

The Coens have never felt it necessary to make their protagonists lovable or hugely empathetic, but in this case, I would have connected to Llewyn's predicaments had he been a little less opaque and his adventures a little more immediate.

Nonetheless, Isaac emerges as a true star in "Inside Llewyn Davis," playing a lost musician who, while searching for the elusive harmony in his life, never misses a beat.

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