Film Review: Barton Fink (1991)


     There is no doubt that Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo; O Brother, Where Art Thou?) are extremely intelligent filmmakers. However, most of their films, although quirky or strange, are quite accessible at first viewing, and not to the detriment of the films’ depth and layering appreciable on subsequent viewings. Barton Fink is a departure from other Coen brothers movies in that, over the course of the picture, it becomes progressively less accessible. The effect is unhappily frustrating.
     In this film, playwright Barton Fink (John Turturro) rises quickly to fame when his production, a leftist story about the plight and nobility of the “common man,” hits big in 1941’s New York City. Barton fancies himself an intellectual who wants to “make a difference in the world” and thereby initially refuses to go out to cheap and uncultured Hollywood to write for the movies. Soon enough, however, he capitulates, succumbing to the allure of promised riches. Barton checks into the art-deco Hotel Earle, not a first-class establishment, but one that may keep him closer to the “common man.” More obvious than the décor in the lobby and spare rooms are the huge shafts of light that slant in through the windows. When “Chet!,” the friendly but somewhat eerie bellboy (Steve Buscemi) welcomes Mr. Fink to Los Angeles, it’s as if he’s welcoming him into the Twilight Zone.
     Loudmouth studio executive Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) hires Barton to write a simple B-picture wrestling flick, which Barton takes on with an intellectual’s obsessive neurosis. He’s never written a wrestling picture. He’s not familiar with the genre. How to begin? He has writer’s block. On the advice of amped-up producer Ben Geisler (Tony Shaloub), he consults famous writer W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney.) Mayhew (modeled after William Faulkner) is not only a celebrated novelist and southern gentlemen, but also a gloriously undignified drunkard.
     Despite this motley array of acquaintances, Barton is alone in Los Angeles. He seems to be held captive by a truly bizarre hotel that quite literally melts around him. Studio executives, other writers, even the hotel elevator operator all seem to have a deficiency prohibiting them from relating to Barton at his level. He yearns to write about the “common man” but he exiles himself by dismissing everyone he encounters. His only friend is the graciously enigmatic Charlie Meadows (John Goodman). Charlie, who introduces himself as a traveling salesman, oozes “common man” in a very real sense. His belly hangs out, he sweats, even his infected ear drips. Charlie offers the answer to Barton’s lack of inspiration with his unending offers to tell him stories, but all Barton can do is wave him off and complain about being an intellectual subject to the tortuous “life of the mind.” We come to find that there is much more to Charlie, and perhaps Barton, than we may have expected.
     Through the beginning and middle of the movie, I was captivated and amused by Barton’s misadventures. The performances by John Turturro and John Goodman are outstanding. Turturro plays the self-absorbed, suffering intellectual in every word he utters, every gesture he makes. Goodman plays the most gracious, likeable guy in the universe and then turns it all on its head to dizzying effect. The interplay between the two actors is nothing short of classic. Judy Davis as Audrey, Mayhew’s “personal secretary,” Lerner, Mahoney, Shaloub, and Buscemi all offer performances worthy of mention. The cinematography of Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo) is gorgeous, telling us so much with light and shadows and with simple camera movements that we feel, as the viewer, like a character in the story.
     Barton Fink is loaded with symbolism, hidden meanings, and suggestion; there’s anti-Semitism, Nazism, homosexuality, Marxism, McCarthyism, elitism, all sorts of -isms. Was this film the Coen’s take on Dante’s Inferno, the Holocaust, the dangers of Hollywood, some combination thereof? The problem, I suspect, is not a lack of content, but the construction. Barton Fink has an ending that is so much more startlingly surreal than the rest of the film that it stops making sense, and therefore feels like no ending at all. Gary Marshall once said “Sometimes when you go out there, you find nobody’s out there with you.” The first time I saw Barton Fink, I felt like I had gone somewhere, but for the life of me I had no idea where I had gone.
     Barton Fink is a good movie that could have been a very good movie. I think that, unfortunately, the Coens may have succumbed to an overdose of what Jack Lipnick called “that Barton Fink feeling.” They may have set out to write a great story, but gotten so wrapped up in their own intellectualization of that story, that they forgot about you and me, the poor old common man.

Copyright © 2007 Ivan Velasco, Jr.

Some movies I’m eagerly anticipating: 2008

Iron Man               5/2    Directed by Jon Favreau, Starring Robert
			   Downey, Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow
Speed Racer            5/9    Directed by the Wachowski’s, Starring
			   Emile Hirsch, Matthew Fox and Christina
The Chronicles of
Narnia: Prince Caspian 5/16   Directed by Andrew Adamson, Starring
			   Georgie Henley and Skandar Keynes
Indiana Jones and the
Kingdom of the Crystal
Skull                  5/22   Directed by Steven Spielberg, Starring
			   Harrisson Ford and Cate Blanchett
                           NOT BAD.  KINDA LIKE WATCHING A VIDEO GAME.
Kung Fu Panda          6/6    Directed by Mark Osborne & John Stevenson,
                               Starring Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman and
                               Angelina Jolie
                           VERY GOOD. IN THE SAME LEAGUE AS ICE AGE.
The Incredible Hulk    6/13   Directed by Louis Leterrier, Starring
			   Edward Norton and Liv Tyler
                           HULK SMASH! (BUT HE’S NO IRON MAN.)
The Happening          6/13   Directed by M. Night Shyamalan, Starring
			   Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel
Get Smart              6/20   Directed by Peter Segal, Starring Steve
                               Carrell, Anne Hathaway, and Dwayne
Wanted                 6/27   Directed by Timur Bekmambetov, Starring
			   Morgan Freeman, James McAvoy and
			   Angelina Jolie
                           EXCELLENT ACTION & VISUALS, THIN STORY.
Wall·E                 6/27   Directed by Andrew Stanton, Starring
                               Ben Burtt, Paul Eiding, and John
                           LOVED IT LOVED IT LOVED IT!!!!
Hancock                7/2    Directed by Peter Berg, Starring Will
			   Smith, Jason Bateman and Charlize Theron
                           I LIKED IT.
Hellboy II: The Golden
Army                   7/11   Directed by Guillermo del Toro, Starring
			   Ron Perlman, Doug Jones and Selma Blair
The Dark Knight        7/18   Directed by Christopher Nolan, Starring
			   Christian Bale, Michael Caine and
			   Heath Ledger
                           THE MOST POWERFUL BATMAN FILM EVER.
The X-Files: I Want to
Believe                7/25   Direted by Chris Carter, Starring David
                               Duchovny and Gillian Anderson
Pineapple Express      8/8    Directed by David Gordon Green, Starring
                               Seth Rogen, James Franco and Gary Cole
                           NOT NEARLY AS FUNNY AS I'D HOPED.
Vicky Cristina
Barcelona              8/13   Directed by Woody Allen, Starring Rebecca
                              Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem,
                              and Penelope Cruz
Death Race             8/22   Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, Starring
                               Jason Statham, Tyrese Gibson and Joan
Babylon A.D.           8/22   Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, Starring Vin
                               Diesel and Michelle Yeoh
Burn After Reading     9/12   Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, Starring
                               Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Tilda Swinton,
                               John Malkovich, and Frances McDormand
W.                     10/17  Directed by Oliver Stone, Starring Josh
                               Brolin and Elizabeth Banks
Max Payne              10/17  Directed by John Moore, Starring Mark
                               Wahlberg and Mila Kunis
Quantum of Solace      11/7   Directed by Marc Forster, Starring
                              Daniel Craig and Olga Kurylenko
Punisher:War Zone      12/5   Directed by Lexi Alexander, Starring Ray
			   Stevenson and Julie Benz
The Day the Earth Stood
Still                  12/12  Directed by Scott Derrickson, Starring
                               Keeanu Reeves and Jennifer Connelly
The Spirit             12/25  Directed by Frank Miller, Starring
                              Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva
                              Mendes and Scarlett Johansson

Last revised and updated August 20, 2008
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