CANNES - For artists now closing in on their thirtieth year of sustained filmmaking success, Joel and Ethan Coen still find an inordinate amount of inspiration in failure. From Barton Fink to Larry Gopnik to the Dude himself, underachievement – whether by personal or social standards – has been the hallmark of many a great Coen hero, sometimes more proudly (and more deservedly) than others. To this estimable gallery of schmucks, we can now add Llewyn Davis: a sincerely talented musician, a compellingly gauche social maladjust and, as played by the winningly rumpled Oscar Isaac, star of one of the brothers’ most bittersweet films. 

A wise, wintry ode to artistry lost, found and placed in storage, “Inside Llewyn Davis” finds the Coens perhaps more sympathetic than ever before to the curiosities of their chosen protagonist. Gone is the pointed, arch mockery of a “Barton Fink” or, more recently, “A Serious Man,” replaced by a kind of benevolent fatalism – the film follows its hapless protagonist with the reserved anxiety of an invested parent determined to let their children make their own bad decisions.

Perhaps middle-aged melancholy has finally caught up with the dark indie princes, spurred on by the colossal box office for 2010’s “True Grit,” their most sentimental, studio-flavored release to date. Or perhaps the heart-on-sleeve integrity of pre-hippy 1960s folk music simply rubbed off in the research. None of which is to say “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a soft or overly forgiving film: rather, it’s as generously dimensional an individual character study as anything in their canon.

The setting is Greenwich Village, circa 1961, though Jess Gonchor’s exquisite production design locates it squarely in the shabbily dreamlike wasteland of American kitsch that most Coen Brothers films, regardless of period, tend to favor. These ramshackle surroundings, coupled with the brittle atmosphere of late-winter drag tangibly conveyed at every turn, could as easily be outward reflections of our protagonist’s current New York state of mind: homeless, penniless, nursing the still-raw emotional wound of his former musical partner’s suicide, Llewyn opens the film performing a jolly little ditty entitled “Hang Me,” and seems to be extending the invitation rather too keenly. (The song is one of several poignant, playfully applied folk pastiches written for the film by T Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford; consider that troublesome Oscar category salvaged for another year at least.)

With his music career having stalled at the next-big-thing stage, and his minor label (essentially a mom-and-pop joint run by two distinctly Coen-esque old coots) having failed to secure one cent of royalties from his debut album (the source of the film’s title), Llewyn is living an essentially temporary life, alternating his extended bouts of couch-surfing between the homes of assorted friends and family: his frosty sister (Jeanine Serralles); vindictive fellow folkie Jean (Carey Mulligan), who’s married to wholesome muso Jim (Justin Timberlake) but may or may not be pregnant with Llewyn’s child; and a kindly academic couple whose unfailing hospitality is returned only with the harshest manifestations of Llewyn’s own social autism. (Oh, and a lost cat, whose resemblance to the skittish feline in 1961’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” can hardly be a coincidence.)

Guy Lodge is a South African-born critic and sometime screenwriter. In addition to his work at In Contention, he is a freelance contributor to Variety, Time Out, Empire and The Guardian. He lives well beyond his means in London.