Inside Llewyn Davis ★★★★½

Shaggy dog masters that they are, the Coens nevertheless do not make an audience work too hard to figure out what the gist of their pictures are. The cat's name only makes explicit what is all but open to begin with, that this is the Ulysses to O BROTHER's Odyssey, trading an expansive journey of purpose set against the vastness of nature for a mired, circuitous urban trek to find a purpose at all. So many are (rightfully) praising the dreamy-wintery Greenwich Village that seems in Bruno Delbonnel's aestheticization to roll into the rest of New York in a fog as if Brigadoon, but its haze is as threatening as it is inviting. It makes Greenwich into Joyce's Dublin, a place of stagnation (artistic in this case rather than moral), and Llewyn's strident nonconformity is, per Dedalus, as limiting and two-dimensional as the pop-loving (and making) people around him.

Still, his couch-surfing, cat-chasing, label-baiting quest for some kind of self-actualization is one of the Coens' most touching films; for all Llewyn's cutting sarcasm and anger, his palpable desperation lends what is otherwise such an oneiric, lolling film a real urgency. Isaac, who elevating DRIVE's most underwritten part into its only human being, does a similar act of transfiguration here, albeit with much stronger material. His sense of resignation is almost Keatonesque, with even his sarcasm laced with a weariness that suggests he doesn't even have the heart to mock. In a long line of put-upon Coens characters, Llewyn really doesn't have it that bad, yet Isaac makes you feel like he's more Job-like even than Stuhlbarg in A SERIOUS MAN.

Not that I think for a second the brothers read Joyce (hell, they didn't even read Homer), but they managed to, in their own workman way, reflect Ulysses' pile-on of its maker's past. It seems to collect the whole of the Coens: their neo-noir in a book-ending scene, the aforementioned SERIOUS MAN evocation of Job, NO COUNTRY's depiction of an unfathomable horror that seeps into and even bolsters a superficial level of homeliness, and the comically meaningless caesuras (endings seems the wrong word for it) of BURN AFTER READING and THE BIG LEBOWSKI. If it is not the Coens' best film, it is only because their usual side parts, best filled by character actors, are instead populated by stars who threaten to render types as overly shrill and easy, especially Carey Mulligan's hostile ex. But even before the film was over, such nagging doubts were being consumed by the unexpected, and sometimes uncomfortable, earnestness of it. Coens haters will no doubt find much fodder to support their dumb notion of the filmmakers' hatred of their creations; the rest of us may well find their most unvarnished display of sympathy.