Homers The Odyssey was the inspiration behind the Coen brothers O Brother, Where Art Thou. And that ancient epic also provides the loose structure and coded, contemplative essence of their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, a brooding folk-music-on-the-brink-of-Dylan period piece built around a heroic quest.
Not that heroic leaps to mind when watching Llewyn, beautifully underplayed by Oscar Isaac. He may sleep on a succession of friends and acquaintances sofas and not be able to afford even a winter coat. But at least this folk-music failure is doing more than merely existing, which is what the squares of 1961 did.
Llewyn is a soulful, melancholy member of that ever-so-brief folk craze that peaked with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in the late 50s and early 60s.
Llewyn has a new High Fidelity LP to his name and no one is buying it. He plays a Greenwich Village basket joint, where if hes lucky, his rapt, turtlenecked audience will drop enough in the passed basket to allow him to eat, smoke and hang on another day.
And from the minute he leaves the stage and is subjected to a back-alley beat-down, we know Llewyn is his own worst enemy, a chilly, embittered jerk who keeps making wrong-headed decisions and wondering why things didnt work out for him.
He was half of an up-and-coming folk duo, but the partner is gone. Hes slept with Jean (Carey Mulligan), even though hes pals with Jim (Justin Timberlake). And Jim and Jean are a folk duo, on and off stage.
Llewyn is rude to his sister (Jeanine Serralles), has an abortionist on standby in case of accidents, and is little value to his small-time record label. And he keeps seeing earnest, WASPy, clear-voiced newcomers get the breaks hes never had.
But hes trying to do better. The cat of some friends gets out as hes leaving their apartment, and he totes it all over New York, waiting for the chance to give it back. He wants to make peace with a furious, foul-mouthed Jean (a side of Mulligan shes never shown us). Because whatever he wants to call it, this unhappy life is just existing and it is not working out.
The Coens, perhaps inspired by the life story of their fellow Minnesotan, Dylan, impeccably re-create that era, from the seedy venues to the perpetual winter of the best folk music record covers.
But Inside Llewyn Davis goes nowhere, even when Llewyn joins a dope-addled jazz player (John Goodman) and his valet (Garrett Hedlund) on a cross-country drive straight out of On the Road (which starred Hedlund). Its like the too-perfectly groomed down and out Llewyn is living through a Coens version of purgatory. The movie is so interior, it so zeroes in on Isaac and his baleful stare, that were relieved anytime something overtly funny happens.
And with all the brooding that goes on, the movie, which never has much momentum, stops cold with every bit of perfectly re-created music on a stage.