The Coen brothers offer clues to their intention by naming the feline lead of their subtle, evasive musical drama – LOLCat alert – for the hero of Homer's The Odyssey.
Inside Llewyn Davis, unlike the directors' O Brother, Where Art Thou?, does not use the tale as any sort of strict template. But Llewyn Davis and the ginger Ulysses do suffer their way through a class of mock-epic journey. Beginning in Greenwich Village (some months before Bob Dylan made that locale his own) the film takes the grumpy, unaccommodating folk singer (Davis, not Dylan) to the Upper West Side, further west to Chicago and back home to a city blissfully unaware of impending cultural landslides.
On closer inspection, Ulysses may, very well, have got his name from Joyce's take on the Greek poem. In keeping with that tome, Ulysses and his reluctant companion do offer a dramatic précis of life in a particular location at a particular point in time.
It's just a thought. The Coens' best films demand such speculations and deconstructions. (You may note, for instance, how the Welshness of the hero's name riffs on Robert Zimmerman's decision to exchange his own second name for Dylan Thomas's first.) And Inside Llewyn Davis is in the top rank, right up there with Lebowski.
The charismatic, dark Oscar Isaac gives us a flawed troubadour, unable to convince the world that he has a talent to match his simmering temper and self-regard. Still reeling from the recent suicide of his singing partner – who, to the dismay of John Goodman's drugged-up jazz musician, jumped from the "wrong" New York bridge – Llewyn spends his days trudging around the clubs and his nights curled up on the couch of tolerant friends.
One evening, after allowing Ulysses to escape his posh friends’ pad, he calls to the apartment of Jean (Carey Mulligan), a former girlfriend, with that beast grumpily in tow. The timing could hardly be worse. Jean has just discovered she is pregnant and suspects that Llewyn may be the father.
Later, he watches Jean – whose sweet onstage persona contrasts hilariously with her offstage fury – perform in a trio modelled on Peter, Paul and Mary. He travels to Queens and snaps at his decent, unpretentious sister. Eventually, Llewyn lights out for Illinois.
Maybe the Joyce parallel is a red herring. You couldn't call Inside Llewyn Davis a work of realism. Shot by Bruno Delbonnel in a permanent smoky haze, the picture, like the Coens' A Serious Man, manages a creative tension of nostalgia and wry cynicism. Modelled on nearly-man Dave Van Ronk, Llewyn reminds us that more residents of this particular Bohemia ended up drunk and forgotten than celebrated by Rolling Stone magazine.
His charm buried deep beneath wads of insensitivity, the hero is constantly huddled against cold and forever bemoaning the wretchedness of his poverty. Well, it's a very pretty misery. Everybody wears crisp clothes, as if preparing for a Tom Ford shoot. Justin Timberlake brings his irresistible glamour to the role of Jean's latest collaborator. This is the same imaginary hobo-fied New York that provided a backdrop to the cover of Dylan's Freewheelin' LP. The eventual arrival of a pseudo-Clancy brothers act (Arran jumpers and The Auld Triangle) confirms that these often-merciless film-makers are unable to stop themselves feeling affection for a much-sentimentalised milieu.
The film occupies an uncertain place in the Coens' canon. It's not nearly as zany as The Big Lebowski or Burn After Reading. It is not quite so dazzlingly gloomy as A Serious Man or No Country for Old Men (though it comes close). Stranded in the middle, it offers a neat, creative commentary, a Weather Man, on the current, vibrant state of Coenland.
Beautifully acted by all, wondrously scored by T Bone Burnett, Inside Llewyn Davis is the gift of comic seriousness: the kind that keeps on giving.