116 Min | Comedy – Drama – Mystery | December 1991
IMDB Rating: 7.7
Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis
Barton Fink Review: In 1941, New York playwright Barton Fink (John Turturro), author of a sensitive drama about “the common man,” gets hired by a Hollywood studio to write a wrestling movie. He holes up in a decrepit hotel, where he comes down with a massive case of writer’s block. The Coen Brothers use this story to explore the creative process, selling out, and probably a lot more besides-though, due to their fondness for symbol and metaphor, these other topics are buried a little deeper. The notion of an idealistic, blocked writer struggling to survive in commercial Hollywood is nothing new. Nor is putting him in a love triangle, when he becomes attracted to the lover (Judy Davis) of the alcoholic writer W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney, parodying William Faulkner). And every night, Barton chats with Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), the self-described “big lug” in the room next door to him. This friendly neighbor who keeps dropping in seems like something out of a sitcom. Still, Barton Fink is never less than entertaining, because of its distinctive Coen Brothers style.
The dialogue delights in old American slang and speech patterns, the actors play their oddball roles with humor, and the visuals/cinematography are interesting. And, just when I thought I could see how the movie was going, the plot takes a massive turn. The Coens return to one of their favorite motifs, an almost apocalyptic sense of violence, and Barton’s life in Hollywood becomes increasingly surreal. This twist, however, has been carefully set up, just look at the eerie atmosphere of Barton’s hotel, or the number of times the dialogue has used the words “head” or “mind.” “Barton Fink” obviously functions on several levels, and one that I find most rewarding is the exploration of Barton’s character (played by Turturro with many hilarious facial expressions). He has high ideals and one successful play, but he is also strangely disconnected from the world.
He prefers analyzing his own writing process to actually writing, and he shies away from interacting with other people-which is the kiss of death for a playwright. In one scene of Barton Fink, Barton denounces playwrights who “insulate themselves from the common man, so naturally their work regresses into empty formalism.” He lacks the self-awareness to realize that he’s doing the same thing, yet this also seems like a self-aware joke on the part of the Coen Brothers, whose work has also been accused of “empty formalism.” The second half of “Barton Fink” is indeed strange and stylized, and maybe it wouldn’t appeal to “the common man”-but there’s depth there, it’s far from empty.