If you love the films of Joel and Ethan Coen, you know that they always look at the world through jaundiced, snark-colored glasses; they'll never be warm and toasty. That quality of metaphysical cynicism runs through all my favorite Coen brothers films, from Fargo to Burn After Reading to A Serious Man. But I was still taken aback to see their jokey misanthropy applied to Inside Llewyn Davis, a tale set in the achingly sincere Greenwich Village folk-music scene of 1961.
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a musician who's the definition of ''struggling.'' He's a talented scrounger, crashing on his friends' couches and living off the pass-around basket after gigs. Really, he's a step away from dereliction. The film opens with Llewyn performing a song at the Gaslight Cafe, and he's a terrific singer direct, emotional, and pure. Isaac, the Guatemalan-born actor and musician who plays him, has hooded dark eyes set off here by a thick beard and unruly black hair (he's like Lenny Bruce as a hipster rabbinical student). He gives Llewyn an earnest, dweeby-sexy Everyman solidity.
But Inside Llewyn Davis is about how life has played a cosmic joke on Llewyn. The quiet, humble folk scene, though no one really knows it yet, is fading; it's about to be washed over by the tidal wave of Dylan, and by the pop commercialization represented by Peter, Paul and Mary. Llewyn is friendly with a musician couple, Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan), who is pregnant possibly by Llewyn, whom she despises. When Jim and Jean get up on stage to perform ''500 Miles,'' we're meant to see that the song, in its lilting loveliness, spells the end for singers like Llewyn. He was once part of a duo himself, but his singing partner killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge, and Llewyn, having gone solo, is now a desperate jerk who treats people like crap because he's hurting deep down inside.
The Coens bring the pre-Dylan 1960s Village to life with a spangly authenticity that leaps off the screen. There's now a Mad Men fascination to this era, and the Coens capture how the wintry streets and scuzzy apartments the peeling-paint rooms and comically narrow hallways were romantic in their very discomfort. You had to want to be in the Village, playing folk songs for peanuts (sometimes literally). And Llewyn Davis, though not a nice guy, has that spirit.
The film charts his downward spiral, and for a while I wondered: Why introduce a hero with talent only to mock his dreams? Yet the more I watched Inside Llewyn Davis, the more I saw that there is something indelible in the Coens' vision of a morosely gifted loser slipping through the cracks. When Llewyn goes into the studio to help record a satirical novelty song called ''Please Mr. Kennedy,'' the movie seems to have the makings of an ebullient folk musical. But the Coens are way too sardonic for that. With Inside Llewyn Davis, they've made a film that is almost spooky in its perversity: a lovingly lived-in, detailed tribute to the folk scene that hauntingly has shut their hero out. A-