Success always seems inevitable in retrospect. Once you’ve arrived, it must have been destined all along. But failure — especially dream-crushing, life-destroying failure — is plagued by what-ifs and what-might-have-beens. Was it just bad luck, or did you really not have what it takes?
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), the tortured protagonist of Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest movie, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” is a failure. Homeless, nearly friendless, and with a folk-singing career that flopped before it took off, he’s as down and out as he could be. Things have gotten so bad that he would rejoin the Merchant Marine, if his sister hadn’t thrown his seaman’s papers in the trash. But Llewyn’s life isn’t completely over, even if he feels like it might be.
Set in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village during one week in the winter of 1961, “Inside Llewyn Davis” hinges on a crucial dramatic irony. Within months, folk music will explode into a major commercial art form. Joan Baez will be on the cover of Time magazine, and tourists will flock to the hootenannies in Washington Square Park. Bob Dylan hasn’t shown up yet, but he’s about to, any minute. Llewyn Davis’s life is going to get a lot easier, even if he doesn’t know it yet.
But then again, maybe it won’t. As with the title character in the Coens’ “Barton Fink,” or Larry Gopnik in “A Serious Man,” Llewyn is left hanging. He seems caught in a metaphysical cycle of recurrence, ending the movie almost exactly where he began it — beaten up in an alley behind the Gaslight Cafe, having just played the same song (“Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”) and having repeated the same line (“If it was never new and it never gets old, it’s a folk song”). Like many of the Coens’ movies, “Inside Llewyn Davis” has the gothic atmosphere of a folk tale; Llewyn is even followed by a cat he can’t shake, despite abandoning it on the highway in the middle of the night.
At the same time, “Inside Llewyn Davis” — which is loosely based on “The Mayor of MacDougal Street,” a memoir by folk and jazz musician Dave Van Ronk — attains a level of historical detail that is likely to please die-hard folkies. Characters include Mel Novikoff (Jerry Grayson), a stand-in for Folkways Records founder Moses Asch, and Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), a version of Albert Grossman, who became Bob Dylan’s manager. The political and cultural undercurrents of the era are also deftly referenced. When Llewyn jokes with the clerk at the Merchant Marine about being a communist, the clerk asks back, under his breath, “A Shachtmanite?”