The scant narrative is livened up with a misguided road trip to Chicago in the company of a zonked beat poet (Garrett Hedlund, wittily outpouting his own Dean Moriarty from last year’s “On the Road”) and junkie jazzman (John Goodman, whooping it up in his first Coens collaboration in 13 years). Otherwise, however, the brothers’ typically flavorful, verbally spiky script follows a necessarily repetitive circuit, as Llewyn keeps visiting the same old haunts and calling on the same, increasingly frayed allies, in half-hearted pursuit of himself.

Though set 52 years in the past, it’s a setup that will strike a cold nerve with anyone who has ever pursued a career as a self-supporting artist – be it singer or actor, poet or filmmaker – and belatedly faced the possibility that one’s life may not ultimately be shaped by one’s talent. “It’s not so bad being normal,” lectures Llewyn’s homemaker sister, though her gifted loser of a brother is no more capable of that than anything else.

Llewyn’s self-absorption and occasional stridency could make him tiresome company in less charismatic hands, but Oscar Isaac is a genuine revelation in the part: previously best known for “Drive” (in which he also starred opposite Carey Mulligan) and “W.E.,” his soulful gaze and shuffling physical gawkiness strike the ideal balance between movie-star magnetism and Coen-picked eccentricity. With Isaac barely off screen, the uniformly excellent ensemble is very much at his service, though in a touching cameo as a Chicago gig promoter telling Llewyn what he least wants to hear, F. Murray Abraham claims at least one key scene as his own. 

Visually and sonically, meanwhile, this is among the Coens’ richest and most ornate films, with Bruno Delbonnel proving a thrilling substitute for the directors’ vacationing regular cinematographer Roger Deakins: Delbonnel’s trademark palette manipulation and misty focus enhance the bitter seasonal atmospherics, as if the screen itself has frosted over and oxidized in places. (Awards potential isn’t the only good reason to release this in December.) Early on, I feared this beauty was at the service of one of the Coens’ wispier films, though its sensual textures prove part of its very substance. If there’s a sense of slightness that never quite leaves “Inside Llewyn Davis,” that’s for the good in a story that, to some extent, is about life’s slightness, and the scattered moments of bliss – a hit, a song, a round of applause – that fleetingly make it whole.

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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.