Earlier this year, Cathleen Schine published a novel called Fin & Lady, a deliriously nostalgic look at an orphaned boy who comes to live with his wealthy sister in a half-renovated Greenwich Village townhouse. The time is the 1960s, and the whole cast of characters is present: the wise intellectual, the working-class bohemian, the musician, and the kinds of young and hip New Yorkers who are always up for a party. Schine paints a golden burnish on every page. Reading it, you regret not having been there. You really want to live in the novel.
Inside Llewyn Davis, the new movie by the writing-directing team of Joel and Ethan Coen, is also set in Greenwich Village, in this case among the denizens and hangers-on of the burgeoning folk-music scene in 1961. But the Coen brothers make sure you do not want to live Inside Llewyn Davis. That is the point, the glory, and the wonder of this film, perhaps the most stunningly unsentimental portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-man ever made.
Inside Llewyn Davis is set in the dead of winter, during a week when the sunless light casts a dull pall. Famously magical Village settings, like Washington Square Park and MacDougal Street, look denatured and bleak. As in every Coen brothers picture, enormous care is taken to get the details exactly right. The look and feel of the re-creation of an older New York, executed on present-day streets and in present-day settings, is beyond praise—even more so because the Coens are not using the painstakingly crafted shots to generate the kind of dreamy and delicious mood Schine does in Fin & Lady. They are after something tougher.
The Coen brothers reproduce some of the seminal images of the time, like a shot of the title character emerging from the Sheridan Square subway station with the iconic Village Cigars sign behind him. But when Llewyn Davis hits the street at the top of the staircase, he is coatless and shivering, he’s toting a cat he does not want, he’s going nowhere fast, and he has a world of worries besetting him. The Village is no idyllic youthful playground for him. It’s just the place where he works and where he usually crashes, in dumpy apartment after dumpy apartment.
This is not the Greenwich Village of fable, the red-hot center of antibourgeois life, where soon-to-be-legendary painters and soon-to-be-dead-in-the-gutter poets argue in bars and have sex with each other’s wives. This is the Greenwich Village where ambitious people struggle, and most aren’t going to make it. The folk-music world this film evokes so meticulously has been so romanticized over the years that one forgets that there were plenty of performers who weren’t Bob Dylan. Llewyn Davis is all of them rolled into one.
A working-class boy from Queens, Llewyn followed in his father’s footsteps and shipped out with the Merchant Marine as a kid. He returned to New York and formed a folk duo. But as the movie begins, his partner is nowhere to be seen. Llewyn has just recorded an album as a solo act and is trying to get his near-comatose manager to promote it in some way, or to just get him enough money to buy a winter coat.
The Coens have created a character awash in talent but utterly hapless in life. And his soulful singing and songwriting do not let him off the hook for his questionable behavior—either with the other characters he disappoints or with his own creators. Faced with various moral challenges, he fails every one. He bungles various business opportunities and isn’t so good with friendships, either. And yet you can’t help but like him a little: He’s unpretentious, he’s had a hard life, and when he sings, he breaks your heart.
Yet again, the year 2013 has produced an indelible lead male performance. The actor’s name is Oscar Isaac, and the Coens clearly knew they had caught lightning in a bottle when they cast him as their extraordinary combination of artist and schnook. Isaac is called upon to be a heel and a bumbler, a heartthrob and a joke, a one-in-a-million and a face in the crowd, often in the same minute. In any other year, he would win an Oscar going away. This year he will be forced to tussle with seven or eight other men who also would have won in a landslide under different circumstances. Where this all comes out, I have no idea.
Something wonderful has happened to the Coens as they’ve reached middle age. They’ve calmed down. The weakness of their earlier movies was how frenetic and labored they could become, even given their unparalleled intelligence, gorgeous visuals, and splendid dialogue. The brothers’ more recent work has become far more controlled and focused, as their interests have grown larger. They are no longer the foremost smarty-pantses in American cinema. They have, instead, become the wise men. And the masterful Inside Llewyn Davis is, above all, a very wise piece of work.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.