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Movie Review: Coen Brothers’ ‘Llewyn Davis’ is bitter and beautiful

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‘Inside Llewyn Davis’

★★★ ½

There’s no business like show business for nightmarish, soul-crushing disappointment.

At least, that’s the way it’s turning out for Llewyn Davis, the aspiring folk singer who’s reaching the bitter end of his artistic ambitions in the Coen Brothers’ gorgeously crafted black comedy “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

“Llewyn Davsis,” the Grand Prix winner at the Cannes Film Festival, opens with Davis singing “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” (a staple of Greenwich Village folk singer Dave Van Ronk, on whom Davis is very loosely based) in 1961 at the Gaslight Café in New York. It’s an arresting, soulful rendition by actor Oscar Isaac, who’s spot-on perfect throughout, and it immediately hooks us on the singer, who seems to embody so ideally the world-weary hipster cool of the Beatnik scene. And then he steps outside into the alley behind the club where he is beaten senseless by a total stranger.

The rest of “Llewyn Davis” is a rewind of sorts of the events leading up to that mysterious beatdown, a rambling, loosely structured parade of personal disasters moving Davis toward the decision to give up on his dream. It’s a story about failure, in that sense, but it’s also a story about someone who seems to have been born for bad news, the predestined butt of a cosmic joke — who’s smart enough to see the bitter humor of the situation.

There’s not much going on in terms of a narrative arc. Llewyn learns he may have gotten the exceedingly acerbic wife (Carey Mulligan) of a good friend (Justin Timberlake) pregnant — and turns out to be the kind of guy who would proceed to borrow money from his friend to pay for the abortion. He takes a long, strange car trip to Chicago in the company of a much more actively obnoxious junkie jazz musician (a brief but memorable appearance by Coen regular John Goodman) to audition for a heartless big-time manager (F. Murray Abraham). And he has ongoing comic adventures involving disappearing/reappearing orange tabby cat — all while freezing because it’s deep winter and he can’t afford a coat.

One nice thing about “Llewyn Davis” is that while the Coens clearly have a the satirical agenda regarding their lead character and the early-‘60s folk scene in general, they’ve also gone for genuine depth of feeling. There’s no shortage of dark humor here, but mockery was not their intention; “A Mighty Wind” this is not. You can see that in the pure beauty of the gray, bleak, melancholy cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (“Amelie”). And you can hear it in the typically spectacular songs produced by T-Bone Burnett (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) — many of them recorded live in performance.

There’s something much more compassionate going on here — and something much more cruel, too. Like the next singer on stage that fateful night at the Gaslight, whose voice provides a note of bitter irony as Llewyn shakes off the punches and listens. And hears something that might be even more painful.

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