Barton Fink

Barton Fink

1991, R, 117 min. Directed by Joel Coen. Starring John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Tony Shalhoub, Jon Polito, Steve Buscemi.

REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Oct. 4, 1991

Weird things happen in Barton Fink, the Coen brothers' comedy with a wicked sense of retribution. Loosely modeled on left-leaning playwright Clifford Odets, Broadway's champion of the American social conscience during the Thirties, Barton Fink is a self-proclaimed vox populi who represses an intellectual contempt for the average Joe in his rhetoric about the common man. (When asked what he does for a living, he solemnly but pretentiously replies, “I try to make a difference.”) Reluctantly lured west by a lucrative Hollywood offer, Fink is assigned to write a screenplay for a wrestling movie starring Wallace Beery -- a simple “man in tights” picture -- only to experience every writer's nightmare: writer's block. Soon, the center of Fink's self-absorbed world cannot hold, and the four walls of his claustrophobic hotel room conspire in his descent into madness: the wallpaper mysteriously peels and oozes wet paste, strange noises emanate behind the walls, and an ever-present mosquito perches on the wall above his bed, lying in wait to suck out whatever creative juices remain in him. For once, the Coen brothers' neurotic filmmaking style works to their advantage; it's giddily appropriate for a movie about a man who's losing his mind. (The funniest and most cleverly executed scene is the Coens' idea of a Freudian joke that literally goes down the drain.) Barton Fink is also the first of their movies to convey any sign of discernible humanity -- to paraphrase Shakespeare, cut it and it bleeds. As the hapless writer who has no one to blame but himself for his misfortune, Turturro -- his hair almost standing on end, his facial expression always off-kilter -- interprets Fink as an artist whose delusions ultimately undo him. His scenes with Goodman, who plays a good-natured traveling insurance salesman living in the room next door, give Barton Fink its thematic lift. It's nothing less than ironic that Fink can only talk down to -- rather than to -- a man whom he believes personifies his artistic raison d'etre; as symbolized by his writer's block, Fink is at a loss for words when faced with the prospect of communicating with the common man in a B-picture. Aside from Turturro and Goodman, this movie is chockful of good performances, from its Hollywood caricatures (Shalhoub's stereotypical, writer-hating producer is an impeccable comic performance likely to elicit accusations of anti-Semitism) to a mesmerizing turn by Davis as the secretary/lover to a Faulkneresque writer, a woman whose Southern-bred patience is only equal to her subtle connivances. Although Barton Fink really gets bizarre when Fink's personal hell takes a fiery form near the film's end, there's a gleeful perversity in seeing Fink eventually sentenced for his crimes against the common man. It's a comeuppance tempered with a cockeyed optimism. If personal experience is the key to a writer's ability to communicate, then Barton Fink has a hell of a story to tell.

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Barton Fink, Joel Coen, John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Tony Shalhoub, Jon Polito, Steve Buscemi

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