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'Inside Llewyn Davis' review: When true grit isn't true or gritty enough

***1/2 (out of four)

Not many filmmakers could avoid coming off as crass while ending a scene with a character holding up a cat, seeking to prove this is not her lost pet, and bellowing, "Where's its scrotum?!"

Writers/directors/brothers Joel and Ethan Coen do so with ease. That's their sense of humor and their distinct vision of the world's profound messages and puzzling mysteries. So fans of the filmmakers ("No Country For Old Men," "A Serious Man") will recognize the state of mind in the Coens' first effort since 2010's solid-if-unexceptional "True Grit" remake. As both comedy and drama, "Inside Llewyn Davis" looks at the human experience and sees a lonely mess, ripe with disappointment and trouble. The Coens aren't pessimists exactly, but if you were to suggest that what goes around comes around, they'd probably tweak it to say, "What comes around comes around again."

Fittingly, "Inside Llewyn Davis" (loosely inspired by the late Dave Van Ronk's memoir) is a film about how the emotional traumas of music and life knock us on our asses even on repeat. In 1961 New York, folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) attempts to begin a solo career after the end of his little-heard duo. Whatever the It factor needed to make it in the music biz, Llewyn doesn't have it. Throughout the film, Llewyn's universe -- which finds him crashing on any floor or couch that will have him -- fills with talented people, or just enough to mean he doesn't really stand out. He's a guy who, with just his voice and words and a guitar, can ensure the only other noise in a packed room comes from the clink of glasses. But a lot of artists can do that.

Moving over you like a slow frost, "Inside Llewyn Davis" (which features Justin Timberlake sporting a beard and mustache!) gently incorporates trademark Coen strangeness while never flinching from the story of a man who seems to be playing a game he's already lost. In a subtly devastating lead role, Isaac (briefly re-teamed with his "Drive" co-star Carey Mulligan, who may be pregnant with Llewyn's child) holds in his eyes the woozy desperation of someone who's received little help and made few compromises. He's been "a sorry mess" a long time -- long enough to forget how he feels when he's not.

"If it was never new and it never gets old, then it's a folk song," Llewyn says. It's like déjà vu the first time, or freshness the 10th -- applicable to a Coen brothers effort that, perhaps appropriately for a continuation of their strengths, practically finds richness in repetition.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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