The Coen brothers' Oscar triumph No Country for Old Men was, in many ways, a revisiting of Fargo that purposefully left out the humanity embodied by Marge's final speech to the killer. If the Coens are now at a stage where they are revisiting their old material in order to express a darker sensibility, it's tempting to think of Inside Llewyn Davis as their update of the already bleak Barton Fink -- an exploration of an artist deluding himself into thinking he's a better person than he is.
Oscar Isaac stars as the title character, a talented folk singer and guitarist whose career has grown stagnant after his former performing partner committed suicide. The prickly Llewyn crashes with various friends on different nights, struggles to get paying gigs, and deals with the news that he's impregnated a female friend (Carey Mulligan) who is involved with another man. After landing some quick cash by doing a recording session, Llewyn takes a road trip to Chicago in the hope of winning over a music impresario (F. Murray Abraham) who might be able to give him his big break (or at least a little more money).
As always with Joel and Ethan, the movie works well as a dark comedy. As the universe conspires to make Davis miserable, we're encouraged to laugh because he does so little to alleviate that condition. He's unlikable, but in a different way than Barton Fink turned out to be unlikable. Barton revealed himself to be a poseur who only had one good idea, whereas Llewyn doesn't even sing his own words but just interprets the works of others. He simply doesn't have anything to say, and that may be the biggest reason why the Coens leave him to a cruel fate.
Isaac, given so little to make his character sympathetic, delivers a performance that humanizes Llewyn in ways the script doesn't make obvious. Sure, he uses people and he's a congenital screwup, but he's also trying to get his life together to the best of his ability -- it's just that his skill in this regard is pointedly lacking. While it's certainly an emotionally downbeat film, Inside Llewyn Davis is often terrifically funny. Mulligan has a series of foulmouthed diatribes aimed at Llewyn that give the movie a hard comedic edge, Coen regular John Goodman turns in a memorable cameo as a voodoo-practicing jazz performer during the road trip to the Midwest, and the song Davis records in the studio -- "Please Mr. Kennedy" -- is a pitch-perfect homage to the tunes of the time period. For that matter, all of the music finds a balance between sounding authentic and being lyrically witty. Joel and Ethan certainly sweeten the bitter pill they want you to swallow.
As they've evolved as filmmakers and writers, the Coens' worldview -- never all that rosy to begin with -- has grown more pessimistic and melancholy. After the despairing three-movie run of No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, and A Serious Man, it appeared as if they had lost any hope for humanity. They seemed to be finding a new course with True Grit, their biggest box-office success, but with its disquieting finale and clear-eyed appraisal of human failing and weakness, Inside Llewyn Davis feels much more like their genuine follow-up to A Serious Man.