As played by Oscar Isaac, Llewyn Davis occupies a very specific section of American space-time, somewhere between Elvis leaving the army and Bob Dylan’s first album.  He’s also a folk singer in the East Village, crashing on the couches of his put-upon friends, trying to move up without selling out. Starting with Llewyn playing a show — and ending with him playing a show — Inside Llewyn Davis goes in circles by design, not by accident. It’s also another Coen Brothers film where the writing-directing pair take a narrow slice of American history and pop culture and inform that narrow breadth of time and space with dry comedy and an astonishing eye for detail. At the end of the day, there’s not really much thematic difference between  Llewyn and Larry Gopnik, the put-upon suburban Job of A Serious Man. There’s also not a lot of difference between the meticulous re-creation of Davis’s world and the ’90s California of The Big Lebowski or the never-was ’40s of Miller’s Crossing. The delight is in the details of each film, but there’s also not much difference between them other than those details.

There is, of course, no such thing as a ‘minor’ Coen Brothers film (even though, yes, there are bad Coen Brothers films);  even if the energy of their movies points towards the mundane more often than they do the mythic, there’s still an astonishing amount to both enjoy and appreciate. Much like the excellent Rock-Doc Dig!, much of Inside Llewyn Davis is concerned with the small-but-significant difference between obscurity and utter obscurity, as Llewyn simultaneously strives to improve and self-sabotage his personal and professional life. Played by Isaac, Llewyn is a man both sinned against and sinning, to mis-quote King Lear; he’s a philanderer who’s impregnated a friend’s wife, a snob who looks down on other people’s “careerist” aspirations for success but  is more than willing to go to great lengths to try and kick-start his own career. Llewyn used to be part of a duo, but now he isn’t, and while the reason why matters, that’s hardly an excuse for cuckolding folk singer friend Justin Timberlake and impregnating Timberlake’s wife Carey Mulligan … or for the other things Llewyn does. Isaac’s version of Davis’ feelings and insults — the exasperated sighs and flat-faced put-downs of someone who can’t believe the world he has to live in — are pretty much perfect, and his dry delivery cuts so deeply you don’t even notice the wounds.

During the release of Fargo, a mockingly apt memento was sent out with promotional materials for the film — a snowglobe, containing Frances McDormand’s Sherriff Gunderson standing over the wood chipper where Steve Buscemi was merged with the infinite. It’s an apt metaphor for a lot of Coen brothers filmmaking — creating these small, sealed worlds of a specific moment in time and space, shaking them up and seeing what the chaos brings. Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t lack for detail — a scene of Llewyn looking for a place to store some records in the apartment of pal/host Al Cody (Adam Driver, amazing) is a wordless bit of perfection.  It does lack for breadth, though, and the Coens have traditionally shied from the political as if it was red-hot. This is fine in building Burn After Reading‘s satire or hammering together No Country for Old Men‘s existential dread. Here, though, it asks the question if can you tell a story about folk music without the changes in time and society that came around it, or with it, a just-the-tunes approach that doesn’t turn the medium and the genre into literal background noise? The music, thanks to T-Bone Burnett, is still superlative — even if the use of Marcus Mumford from Mumford and Sons on some songs firmly snaps you out of the film and into the now.

Llewyn the man is even less realized than Llewyn’s neighborhood and nightclubs, and to the film’s detriment; even with a roadtrip to Chicago (most notable for its sense of the roads not taken), Llewyn’s universe has the look, feel and apparently the same dimensions as a 12-inch record sleeve. Inside Llewyn Davis is a specific type of film that’s dammed hard to pull off, and that, even if you do pull it off, irritates audiences: It’s a film about failure, about not being the guy, about being so tangled in a web of circumstance and your own errors that it feels like all you can go is deeper. Llewyn Davis is part of a long line of unlucky Coen characters, all the way back to H.I. McDonough and Barton Fink, and while it feels, to be sure, like a theme, it also feels a little threadbare and worn at this point. The invention and skill and sharp wit  the Coens bring to their meticulously-crafted dizzy, shaken snowglobes is still magnificent, of course — and at the same time, throughout you can feel the sense that, perhaps, it’s now actually the Coens who need to be shaken until they show us something new.