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Inside Llewyn Davis

Just to get the out of the way right up front: Inside Llewyn Davis is not a roman à clef about Dave Van Ronk, the musician known as the “Mayor of MacDougal Street” because he was such a presence in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village going back to the days before Bob Dylan arrived there. This is not a warning necessary to the probable majority of viewers who have never heard of Van Ronk, though if the film inspires you to check out his recorded legacy, that’s all to the good. And if the Coen brothers have been taking a lot of heat from his fans, it’s their own fault: They do borrow abundantly from the man’s career, beginning with a title borrowed from the 1963 album Inside Dave Van Ronk.

Disappointment is certainly a factor at play here: Van Ronk had a pretty fascinating life, and a biopic about him is a movie worth making. But no one who has ever seen anything by the Coen brothers could really expect that they would be the ones to make it. Theirs are not the kind of imaginations likely to be held in check by biographical facts.

But they do their best to re-create the milieu of the American folk music scene of the early 1960s, centered in Greenwich village and viewed here in the the year before Dylan’s arrival. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, who has the shaggy look of Mark Ruffalo) is, like so many others, a man with a guitar, a moving voice, and a knowledge of traditional songs. He doesn’t want to change the world: He just wants to make a living. But the partner with whom he recorded his first album is dead, and his solo album isn’t burning up the charts. And while Llewyn is able to find couches to crash on (despite a personality which can best be described as abrasive), it takes us awhile to realize that this is his only option: He seems to have no home of his own.

If Llewyn’s travels, which takes him to Chicago in a quest for proper management, have a larger-than-life quality, it may be because the Coens explicitly and repeatedly reference The Odyssey. (They complain when people compare this movie, which has already spawned a best-selling soundtrack album, to O Brother Where Art Thou?, which more openly retold the Greek legend.)

Coen fans who regard them as essentially comic may be disappointed here: It’s more bleak than black-humored, and if it has a predecessor in their oeuvre, it would be 2009’s A Serious Man. You won’t be entirely unrewarded, not with the delight of Llewyn’s session work on novelty recording called “Please Mr. Kennedy,” and a hilarious appearance by John Goodman as a smacked-out jazz musician who delights in snarky put-downs of Llewyn’s chosen genre. (“We play the whole scale, all 12 notes.”) True Coen fans, though, will recognize that they have done what they always do so well: making a movie that appears to be like nothing else they’ve done before, resulting in a movie that could only have been made by them.

Watch the trailer for Inside Llewyn Davis

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