Remember the part of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life where George Bailey turns nasty? He screams at his wife and children, kicks over furniture, viciously harangues his daughter’s teacher, storms out to drink at a bar, gets punched in the face, crashes his car into a tree, and then staggers to a bridge to jump and end it all.
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) of Inside Llewyn Davis is that George Bailey for the duration of the film, but he has no guardian angel—nor any good relationships with his family or neighbors—to save him. Llewyn, an aspiring folk singer bouncing from couch to couch in 1961 New York City, screams profanities at those closest to him, gets punched in the face, and loses the cat of a generous host. He alienates everyone. The song he sings in the first and last scenes is George Bailey standing on the bridge: “Hang me, oh hang me,” he croons.
Inside Llewyn Davis (rated R for intense cursing and intensely crude conversations) is an anti–Frank Capra film. A director in the 1930s and 1940s, Capra was the king of idealistic Americana, where the morally backboned protagonists overcame obstacles. Joel and Ethan Coen, the brother writers and directors of Llewyn, never allow their bleak picture to resolve into rosiness. Llewyn goes from rags to more rags. He signs away royalty rights on a hit song with another folk singer, Jim (Justin Timberlake), to get some quick cash so he can pay for a former lover’s abortion. New York City in 1961, even with its beautiful vintage subways, seems like a miserable place to be. The troupe of eccentric side characters, a staple of Coen brothers’ films, are welcome distractions.
If you don’t want to sit through a gray-skied critique of American idealism, do give the T Bone Burnett–produced soundtrack a listen. Isaac has a comforting voice that almost makes you forget his character is a lousy jerk. Others join him, including Timberlake, Marcus Mumford, and mandolin wizard Chris Thile. And we hear a previously unreleased song from a more successful folk singer in 1960s New York: Bob Dylan.