It’s tempting, but too easy, to filter Joel and Ethan Coen’s masterfully melancholy Inside Llewyn Davis – in Nashville only at Belcourt Theatre – through James Joyce and Homer. Oh yes, the siblings have some fun with that, given that the lead character must grapple with a here-one-minute-and-gone-the-next cat named Ulysses (the Latinized form of Odysseus, who as lit students know features prominently in “The Odyssey” and other parts of Homer’s epic cycle) and yet another siren-like John Goodman-portrayed character for the Coen canon.
But as with much of their best work there’s enough left unsaid or unseen to leave this feature and its inhabitants open for a multitude of interpretations. Take us any way you like, the Coens seem to say time and time again, we just want you to take us. Perhaps that’s one reason after three decades that a new feature from them claims as much delightful anticipation from critics and other film fans as the presents children spot under the Christmas tree each Dec. 25.
The lead character’s Welsh first name means either “like a lion” or “shining one,” depending on the source one accepts. That’s ironic for the title character, since the only time he fits those descriptions is when he’s singing – we get our first taste of that at the film’s outset when Davis (played with star-making depth by Oscar Isaac) sings “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” and later with riveting renditions of “The Death of Queen Anne” and “The Shoals Of Herring.” (Credit Music Supervisor T Bone Burnett for again providing a soundtrack to a Coen Brothers film that both underscores and illuminates the story.)
If there is simplicity in this profundity it’s the basic storyline: we follow a bumpy and literally bruising week in the largely unlikable Llewyn’s life which includes battles with his manager (the late Jerry Greyson) who wants him to record something more commercial since his first album with his now-dead singing partner tanked and the wife (played with understandably sharp edges by Carey Mulligan) of his buddy Jim (nice work from Justin Timberlake), who tells Davis he’s like “the brother of King Midas”. He manages to hurt the feelings of the only people who remain devoted fans of his work (a sweetly sympathetic Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett) and spends money from recording a novelty song on an ill-fated trip to Chicago in the company of a drug-riddled bluesman (played by Goodman with his typical zest for such grotesques) and his driver (still waters run deep from Garrett Hedlund).
The story is set in 1961 before the hurricane known as Bob Dylan blew artists such as Davis away in the coffeehouses of Greenwich Village and elsewhere. But while Davis is loosely based on the late Dave Van Ronk, the movie isn’t historical fiction; it’s another Coen Brothers fable where their look at Sisyphus-like failure through the mythical filter of the American Dream is very poignant. And with the brownish hues of Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography the wind that’s blowing around and through Inside Llewyn Davis feels like a bracing winter chill. We can all relate to that feeling, no matter what our take on this intriguing film.
Inside Llewyn Davis (www.insidellewyndavis.com) opens today (Dec. 20) in Nashville exclusively at the Belcourt Theatre (2102 Belcourt Ave.); click here for showtimes and to buy tickets. Rated R for language including some sexual references, 115 min. Written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Starring Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, F. Murray Abraham, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett, Ethan Phillips, Stark Sands, Adam Driver and Jeanine Serralles. Opening night special guests: Following the 7:10 p.m. screening today veteran musician and musical historian Pete Finney will lead a conversation with Grammy Award-winning songwriter, singer and author Janis Ian, who began her career in the 1960s New York City folk scene depicted in the film; and songwriter and Rhino Books owner Fred Koller, who, like Janis, was a close friend of Dave Van Ronk.