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Critic’s Pick: ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’

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Joel and Ethan Coen continue to surprise audiences with idiosyncratic and authentic movies — some harmonize with a wider audience and, others, like "Inside Llewyn Davis," that sneak in to sing to the choir. With the title taken from the sole solo album of a forgotten fictional folkie, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), this is a sweet and sour story of a failure. Call it a star-is-unborn story.

Set in 1961 Greenwich Village, it rips a wintry landscape from the album cover of "The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan" — and then places Davis at its center without an overcoat, shivering in his thin shoes and wet socks. Davis is the guy who could have been Dylan — but wasn’t.

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In the beat before the famed singer-songwriter takes center stage (a lookalike appears in a final scene), a broke and bewildered Davis tries to make one last stand for a career as a folk singer. This is the very moment that the great folk revival shifted from curating traditional songs and lyrics to combining original lyrics and traditional melodies — and becoming the soundtrack for the social movements of the early '60s.

Recalling "A Mighty Wind," but more oil painting than satiric sketch thanks in part to the brilliant cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel, the movie is ripe with supporting characters that beg for their own movies. Carey Mulligan sparks as Jean Berkey, one-half of a comfy duo with Justin Timberlake’s Jim. Jean’s constantly angry at Llewyn, an attitude that hones the actress’s edge in a way that was absent from her recent languid Daisy in "The Great Gatsby." Timberlake, all V-neck sweaters and '60s-square sweetness, is impeccable. If anything, we want more of the duo, along with Coen regular John Goodman, who shows up for a doomed road trip to Chicago carrying his own piss and vinegar.

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The intense Isaac ("Drive," "W.E.") with caramel eyes and a sweet singing voice, gets a winning showcase for his talents. Isaac always appears entirely in the moment — no hint of irony, no wink to the present — connected to the other actors and his music with the earnest fervor of a committed folkie. The movie, like Davis' career, never quite catches fire, but it picks out a melody that lingers long after the final credits — and places it as a contender in the Oscar race.

Bottom Line: A successful study in folk failure from the Brothers Coen