Much like the somber melodies that float throughout its 105-minute runtime, Inside Llewyn Davis will remain lodged in your head weeks after you and the film first meet. With Oscar Isaac's "Fare thee we-e-ell..." ringing daintily in your ears, you'll shuffle out from the grasp of the Coen Brothers' wonderland of gray, but you won't soon be able to relieve yourself of what is arguable the pair's best film yet. Llewyn's is a story so outstandingly simple — he's a man who's s**t out of luck, and not especially deserving of any. He wakes up, loses his friend's cat, plays some music, and wishes things were better. And yet his is the Coens' most invigorating and deftly human tale yet.
Llewyn Davis makes the bold, but practical, choice of never insisting that we love its hero. He's effectively a jackass, justifying all the waste he has incurred with the rudeness he showers on the majority of those in his acquaintance. But Llewyn Davis isn't the villain here, either. The villain is the industry, and all the uphill battles inherent to its machinations. The villain isn't Llewyn's substantially more successful contacts — an old pal Jim (Justin Timberlake) and new fellow couch-surfer Troy (Stark Sands), but the listening public that prefers their saccharine pop to his dreary drips of misery. The villain isn't Llewyn's resentful old flame Jean (Carey Mulligan), no matter how many volatile admonitions she might shoot his way, but the act of God surrounding their unwitting adherence to one another. And it's not even the cantankerous and foul Roland Turner (a delightfully hammy John Goodman), but the endless, frigid open road of which each man is a prisoner (if the film has one flaw, it's that this segment carries on just a bit too long, but that might very well be the point). The villain is the cold.
Call it all a raw deal. But the real dynamism isn't in the challenges that happen outside Llewyn Davis, but in the determined toxicity brewing inside as he meets each and every one.
But this isn't the Coen Brothers' Murphy's Law comedy A Serious Man — we don't watch a chaotic pileup of every imaginable trick that the devil can manage to pull. Llewyn is steady throughout, not burying Llewyn deeper but keeping him on the ground, with the fruit-bearing branches forever out of his reach. In its narrative, Llewyn Davis is as close to natural life as any of the filmmakers' works to date. Perfectly exhibited in a late scene involving a trip to Akron, Llewyn isn't a cinematic construct, but the sort of person we know, so painfully, that we are very likely to be... on our bad days.
Still, working in such a terrific harmony with the grounded feel of Llewyn himself, we have that Coen whimsy in their delivery of 1960s New York City — rather, a magic kingdom painted in the stellar form of a 1960s New York City. And not the New York City we're given by the likes of Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen. Closer, maybe, to Spike Lee or Sydney Lumet, but still a terrain unique to moviegoers. A New York that's always recovering from a hostile rain, and always promising another 'round the bend. One that flickers like a dying bulb, with its million odd beleaguered moths buzzing around it against the pull of logic. There is something so incredibly alive about the Coens' crying city; this hazy dream world's partnership with half-dead, anchored-to-earth portrait like Llewyn is the product of such sophisticated imagination at play.
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And to cap this review of one of the best features 2013 has given us, it's only appropriate to return to the element in which its identity is really cemented: the music. Without the tunes bobbing through the story, we'd still likely find something terrific in Llewyn Davis. But the music, as beautiful as it is, is the reason for the story. As we watch Isaac's hopeless sad sack drag himself through Manhattan's winter, past the helping hands of friends and into the grimaces of strangers, as we struggle with our own handfuls of nihilistic skepticism that any of this yarn is worth the agony (or that our attention to its meandering nature is worth the price of a ticket), we are given the rare treat of an answer. Of course it's all for something. Of course it's all about something. It's about that beautiful, beautiful music.
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After a brief flashback prologue where we see how the young lion Alex (Ben Stiller) is separated from his father Zuba (Bernie Mac) inadvertently ending up in the Big Apple the story returns to present day as our favorite New York zoo denizens prepare to take off from Madagascar in a crudely constructed airplane piloted by the penguins and propelled by slingshot. Unfortunately for Alex lovelorn giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) fast talking zebra Marty (Chris Rock) and svelte hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett-Smith) instead of landing in NYC the aircraft sputters and crash lands right in the middle of Africa where they run into a world of exotic creatures. This also includes Alex’s long lost dad and mom. Happy reunion? Not quite. Zuba’s nemesis Mukunga (Alec Baldwin) insists they follow lion pride lore which means Alex must go through a rite of passage -- one he is sure to fail if Mukunga has his way. Meanwhile Marty tries to integrate into a pack of zebras; Gloria gets hooked up with a soulful hippo (will.i.am); and Melman is up to his neck looking for love. Oh and they also all have to save the Kenya preserve from a life-threatening water shortage. No biggie! Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa’s witty and hip dialogue provides rich voice over opportunities for a talented crew of actors. Stiller continues to be a riot as the showbiz loving Zooperstar Alex especially in his attempts to earn the pride’s respect. Chris Rock earns his stripes as he tries to hang with a large group of look-a-like sound-a-like zebras. Schwimmer is winning and hysterical as Melman now considered a witchdoctor by his fellow giraffe-ians while Pinkett-Smith continues to shine as hippo Gloria looking for a little action. Among the new voices rapper will.i.am as Moto Moto the last of the red-hot hippos will have you wanting More More while Alec Baldwin gets to play the heavy with Lion King style. The late Bernie Mac playing it relatively straight as Alex’s father proves (as he does in his other new release this week Soul Men) shows us just how much his unique brand of humor will be sorely missed. Stealing the show however and getting king-sized laughs in an expanded role is Sacha Baron Cohen back as King Julien the hard-partying head of the lemurs. With a vast improvement in Madagascar’s state-of-the-art computer graphic work directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath take this sequel several notches up in terms of technical savvy including the exciting opening sequence as well as the plane crash. But they really score with the script with new co-writer Etan Cohen adding some crisp comedy. What was mostly just a serviceable script the first time around has gotten a lot more sophisticated and clever a development parents being dragged by their kids will be keenly grateful for. This is the rare animated sequel that actually has a reason for existence other than minting money. It has more heart drama and laughs than the original Madagascar which despite its flaws still made half a billion dollars worldwide. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa should make even more as it proves to be one of the year’s most entertaining comedy delights.