‘Llewyn Davis’ excels despite insufferable title character

Greenwich Village in the early 1960s is one of those American scenes that people love to romanticize: the flowering of folk music, the nurturing of the counterculture, a new generation speaking its own language, giant talents like Bob Dylan breaking out.

What a moment, what a place.

Joel and Ethan Coen, the filmmaking brothers whose remarkable 30 years of moviemaking include “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men,” aren’t buying the romance. Their film set in that Greenwich Village moment is seen without rose-colored glasses, with a hero who’s a self-centered jerk burning bridges like nobody’s business.

In “Inside Llewyn Davis,” it’s 1961, and Llewyn (played by Oscar Isaac, late of “Drive”) has been bashing his head against the folk scene for a few years already. He crashes on friends’ couches, performs for a pittance at the Gaslight Cafe, and treats his women friends with a special kind of callousness.

With someone like this at the center of the movie, it’s an achievement for “Inside Llewyn Davis” to be among the better films of the year. And the Coens have peopled the story with a gallery of fascinating types, articulate period lingo, and wonderful music. Their eye for detail is immaculate as always — this may not be a romanticized movie, but the decor and costumes are still gorgeously evocative.

They’ve also made a film that is decidedly not straightforward.

Well before the eyebrow-raising final sequence, you may begin to suspect that there is something odd about the way this tale is unfolding, about Llewyn’s circular journey and the way he never seems to get it.

The crashing realities of his world — that he’s insufficiently cute for mainstream success, that his songs aren’t pop enough, that he can’t shake a past tragedy — unfold in sharply played episodes.

A session gig (an absurd tune called “Please Mr. Kennedy” is a comic high point), a showdown with an exasperated former fling (Carey Mulligan), a road trip to Chicago with a junkie jazz player (John Goodman in primo form) and his stone-faced driver (Garrett Hedlund) — nothing ever entirely works out for Llewyn.

Even the tiniest parts are gems, but Justin Timberlake (as a clean-cut folkie who understands how the game is played) and F. Murray Abraham (as a placid agent) are among the standouts.

Oscar Isaac, who carries the film, is an accomplished musician, and does his own playing here. It’s a tricky part, and Isaac doesn’t back away from Llewyn’s less attractive qualities.

The Coens are so skilled, they could create much easier films. This one’s got their usual sarcasm and flinty edges, but it has sadness, too. In the end, you gotta feel some sympathy for Llewyn: The times they are a-changin’, but he’s not.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” (4 stars)

Joel and Ethan Coen conjure up the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961, where a self-centered musician (Oscar Isaac) can’t make headway. This isn’t nostalgia, but it is a wonderfully detailed and acted portrait of a guy who can’t seem to learn lessons from his past mistakes — and the movie itself rolls out in a curious, oddball way. With Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake.

Rated: R for language.

Showing: Harvard Exit, Sundance.

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