“Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions never lie to you.”
- Roger Ebert
And dammit, they tend to succeed. The Coens train the camera closely on Llewyn (Oscar Isaac, mopey), perhaps too close. It's an artful little trick, at once politely curious and just a tad invasive, giving simple scenes an added layer of vulnerability, even scandal. You'll soon feel like a distant friend entrusted with a large secret: you're embarrassed to know so much, but you'll do whatever you can to help.
As for the premise, it's a sadder, more male, more musical version of HBO's Girls, which is to say it's a little less witty, a little more serious, easier to listen to but harder to sit through. Mr. Llewyn Davis is a Manhattan musician in his late twenties with no money, some talent, and a beard with just the right amount of scruff to win over young hipsters and middle-aged moms alike. He's got the smarts to land a better job, but his blind passion leaves him a penniless couch surfer. To the Coen brothers' credit, Llewyn's music hits the right pitch, neither bad enough to be dismissed nor quite catchy enough to be a commercial success.
Like the film's soundtrack, the acting performances work well, but not well enough to be terribly memorable. Isaac's Llewyn can wallow better than anyone (Ron Weasley and Peeta Mellark should take notes), but the performance ends up playing out like one long sigh. You'll wish you could see Llewyn happy—just once—if only to make more sense of his perpetual dopiness. Co-star Jean (Carey Mulligan, annoyed) has some fun calling Llewyn names, but doesn't do anything here to upstage her (better) performance as Daisy in The Great Gatsby. If anything, you'll enjoy Justin Timberlake and John Goodman most, simply because they play to caricature—a bit of familiar fun amidst two hours of grief.
In typical Coen fashion, there's a lot here to think over. What does it mean to be true to oneself? What constitutes loyalty among friends? Is it always worth pursuing what we love, even if it hurts others and leads to deep bouts of depression? The Coens are happy to present these questions rather than attempt answers, and for some, that's just exactly what a movie should be.
Here, however, I tend to disagree with Ebert and the Coens. I want more from a film than unstructured, unedited emotion, a moment in time suspended over two hours, emotionally-charged yet intellectually incomplete. A movie doesn't have to take a political stand, but it should still tell a story, if only to encapsulate its truth in a shared medium we can all understand. The Coens may believe that their films—unencumbered by the old-fashioned constructs of plot and storyline—will be purer expressions of art, but to me they represent something closer to magic tricks, a way of producing meaning where there isn't any—or at least less meaning than they would like us to believe.
I can recommend Inside Llewyn Davis for its music, for its camerawork, for the way it captures a young New Yorker struggling to make a living in an industry that will only trample his ambitions over and over again. But as a film? My intellect says no.