Llewyn's a singer without a home, so he's camping out on friends' davenports and begging for the spotlight at the Gaslight bar, where he gets paid by passing the hat. He has few scruples, which is what allows him to beg even his ex-girlfriend and her new beau for time on their sofa. He also begs an old professor friend and his wife, the Gorfeins, for a chance to borrow their couch. He cuddles up next to the Gorfeins' cat, Ulysses, and actually seems to make a connection. On his way out, however,Ulysses, races ahead of Llewyn, forcing the singer to chase the cat. Hilarity ensues. But, of course, the professor's apartment door has slammed shut, and Llewyn doesn't have a key, so he has to take the rescued cat with him to his weary sister's, where he hopes to bed down next.
But here's the thing about the cat: cute as he is, darling as the little epidsodys are on the cat's antics that require Llewyn to show some responsibility, that cat is not enough to hold this movie together. It's barely enough to provide comic relief. And writers and directors Ethan and Joel Coen know it -- the fact has not escaped them as the cat escapes Llewyn. Nor will the cat's name escape anyone who appreciated the Coens' tribute to Homer's character of Ulysses, a wanderer, in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" "Inside Llewyn Davis" is a far cry from "O Brother," despite some of the Coens' quirks. There are the requisite odd characters, including ones played by Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver, F. Murray Abraham and, of course, John Goodman although Goodman's character and lines are an audition scene, divisible from the film. Carey Mulligan plays a shrew who chews scenery. Oscar Isaac plays the title character tolerably, but he does not make anyone care much about Llewyn Davis.
The film also includes, of course, good music, here as in "O Brother" by T-Bone Burnett; "Inside Llewyn Davis" begins and ends with the title character's singing "Hang Me, O Hang Me," but its reprise near the end allows the Coens to seem to be playing with time as the film comes full circle -- or not, another desperate little nod to make the movie more than it is. One of the best little scenes shows an astonished Llewyn as he gives up the stage of the folk singers' bar to a middle-aged frump with an Autoharp -- that's priceless. "Inside Llewyn Davis" is not the best Coen film ever made, but it is ripe for discussion about why it does not work, and that's always a good exercise.