The writing/directing team of Joel and Ethan Coen can claim a considerable number of movies that pleased both critics and audiences, not always an easy achievement. Their work varies widely, films as different as an outrageous comedy like "The Big Lebowski," an eccentric crime story like "Fargo," or a dark, bloody thriller like "No Country for Old Men." Aside from a fondness for locating their work in a particular time and place, possibly the major distinguishing mark in most of their films is a kind of determined quirkiness, a consistent attraction toward the slightly offbeat and askew.
That inclination, perhaps not so strangely, often leads to one of the most annoying elements of the Coens' work: a tendency to mock their own subjects, to parody the forms they imitate, to make fun of their characters. The technique allows them to take refuge in an invulnerable position, hinting that whatever mistakes they make are intentional, that they're only having fun after all, a practice that protects them from negative criticism.
In their latest movie, "Inside Llewyn Davis," which seems to be receiving the sort of critical praise usually reserved for the great monuments of the cinema -- films along the line of "Grand Illusion" and "Citizen Kane" -- that practice governs a good deal of the action and influences much of the characterization. Even its protagonist, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), behaves like one of the hapless targets of the Coens' sometimes nasty mockery.
Announcing that the year is 1961, the picture opens and closes with pretty much the same sequence of events, suggesting the brothers' familiar protective self-parody. Llewyn Davis awakens on a couch in a spacious New York apartment (belonging to someone else) and as soon as he leaves, finds himself in the sort of broadly comic situation featured in a hundred other movies -- a cat slips out, the door slams, and he finds himself locked out. Carrying his minimal luggage, a guitar, and the cat, he begins a repetitive peregrination that pretty much sums up his hapless life and sustains the plot of the movie.
Llewyn Davis is a folksinger at a time when the form enjoyed a surprising popularity, trying to succeed in the highly competitive environment of New York cafes and bars. He has made an album with his former partner, who committed suicide for unexplained reasons. Llewyn now works on his own, unable to pry royalties out of his recalcitrant agent, depending upon a hat passed for his performances in an obscure Greenwich Village bar. With no place to live, he exploits the grudging hospitality of his friends and colleagues, chiefly a singing couple, a husband and wife team named Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan).
In addition to the cat, a past relationship with Jean complicates his situation and depletes his meager finances. Jean informs him that she is pregnant, is unsure whether Jim or Llewyn is responsible, and for some reason blames him for having sex with her. Llewyn must find some work, dig up the money for an abortion, get the cat back to its owners, and somehow straighten out his life.
The movie consequently shows the singer alternately performing, sponging off various acquaintances, and in one long sequence, traveling to Chicago in hopes of a job at the legendary Gate of Horn. The directionless plot, which moves episodically as if it were being concocted on the fly, brings him in contact with other musicians, none of them terribly talented or friendly, and, in a strange sequence, a garrulous eccentric named Roland Turner (John Goodman at the top of his game).
A passive actor playing a passive character, Oscar Isaac appears in every scene, perhaps the only praiseworthy part of his performance. The Coen brothers also present a most convincing glimpse of a particular, identifiable time, one of their specialties; otherwise, "Inside Llewyn Davis" is a dreary, depressing portrait of a generally uninteresting person -- a loser, as Jean calls him. And after all the alternately whiny, nasal, falsetto lyrics about love and loss and such matters and the repetitive music, I don't think I really want to hear another folk song for a long, long time.