Jean (Carey Mulligan), for example, is one half of a clean-cut folkie duo with her husband, Jim (Justin Timberlake), who is also a good friend of Llewyn’s. Llewyn has nevertheless impregnated Jean, and her vituperation with him cuts right through her stage-managed cheeriness. Already cash-strapped, he now must pay for her abortion.
Why should we care about Llewyn? It’s a fair question, and there indeed were times when I thought I was trapped inside a generic Coen Brothers drearathon. What lifts the film out of the usual glum rut is that Llewyn, for all his self-regarding annoyingness, is a genuine talent. He exhibits the true artist’s alchemy: When he’s performing, all his nonsense burns away and what you get is pure, proud, deep-toned feeling. (The marvelous soundtrack of songs, some standards, some new, was produced by T Bone Burnett.) Only as an artist is he fully realized, and so his failure to connect with audiences and booking agents isn’t just a professional loss, it’s a personal tragedy.
The Coens created a Job-like character in “A Serious Man,” a luckless professor for whom nothing could go right. There was an element of cruelty in that film, like watching someone being dismembered slowly, limb by limb, but the ghastliness of the man’s predicament was so horrible it was funny – a black comic kvell. Llewyn’s fate is more of a slow-burn slide into despair, a despair he never fully allows himself to indulge.