Barton Fink (1991)

One of the Coens’ very best – a fine character study and a strong allegory of what is rotten about Hollywood filmmaking.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen
1991 | USA | Drama/Comedy | 116 mins | 1.85:1 | English
PG (passed clean) for language and some scenes of violence

Cast: John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis
Plot: In 1941, New York intellectual playwright Barton Fink comes to Hollywood to write a Wallace Beery wrestling picture.
Awards: Won Palme d’Or, Best Director, Best Actor (Cannes). Nom. for 3 Oscars – Best Supporting Actor, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design.
Source: Universal (Park Circus)

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Review #574

(Reviewed on DVD – first published 12 Dec 2010)

Spoilers: Mild

Only the Coens’ fourth feature film, Barton Fink made history at Cannes for being the first motion picture to sweep the Palme d’Or, Best Director and Best Actor awards. Their film also scored three Oscar nominations including one for Best Supporting Actor for Michael Lerner.

One of their very best works, Barton Fink is a psychological drama that is laced with the brothers’ trademark oddball humor, stylized dialogue, and some exaggerated acting, in what is a surreal tale about a talented playwright who has trouble writing for the screen.

His name is Barton Fink (John Turturro). Fresh from penning a critically-acclaimed play about the “common Man”, Barton’s sudden fame lands him a ticket to Hollywood where he meets a couple of bosses from Capitol Pictures who demand that he writes a screenplay for a wrestling B-picture.

Only given a week to show what he has got, Barton confines himself in his hotel room only to find that he is out of ideas after typing a few lines on his typewriter. By the way, the hotel he is staying in is one of the weirdest I have ever seen. It is damp, stuffy, and strange-looking.

Did I also say that it feels like hell on earth? Well, when you got someone who walks up a creaky stairs from below, unlocks and opens a hatch to attend to you, and a lift operator who mutters “6” three times on your ascent to your room on the sixth floor, it is hard to argue against that claim.

And I haven’t mention about wallpapers peeling off to reveal sticky, melted glue, and irritating mosquitoes disfiguring your face while you are having a shut-eye.

“I could tell you stories to curl your hair, but it looks like you’ve already heard ’em.”

Barton has a neighbour called Charlie (John Goodman), who becomes good friends with him despite being complained by the former for disturbing the peace with his incessant laughter. Now, that’s something pleasant to hear.

The relationship between Barton and Charlie is one of mutual admiration. Charlie is someone Barton would describe as a “common Man”, while Charlie is very impressed with Barton’s intellectual pursuits. Until something horrible happens…

The Coens are blessed with the ability to create vivid, eccentric characters that are collectively anchored in real-world believability, yet each retains his (or her) distinct individual traits – very often quirky, occasionally peculiar and kinky, but rarely uninteresting ones – which are a complete joy to watch and savor, especially when the actors playing these characters are at the top of their game, and they very often are under the Coens’ immaculate direction.

Barton Fink delivers a fair amount of psychological suspense as the Coens deal not only with Barton’s external environment but also with his psyche.

Carter Burwell’s minimalist music coupled with the Coens’ use of slow zoom-ins and close-ups, and cinematographer Roger Deakins’ use of odd color schemes effectively translate the nature of Barton’s character into what I would describe as a self-doubting being lost in a space of surreal desolateness.

“Look upon me! I’ll show you the life of the mind!”

Is Barton a gifted writer of promise or merely a one-trick pony? His journey into the heart of darkness that is Hollywood reveals much of his inability to question what is around him. Does he ask why when his room’s wallpaper peels off?

No, he just sticks it back on. In the film’s final scene, he sees a beautiful girl in a sunbathing suit sitting on the beach (an identical image appears in a picture hanging on his room wall that he lusts upon), but he does not pursue any further than a short one-liner conversation.

Barton Fink is a fine character study that could also double up as an allegory of what is rotten about Hollywood filmmaking. The need for independent voices is real, and who better to illustrate this than the masters of independent cinema themselves – the Coens.

Grade: A




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