“Barton Fink”

September 10, 2008

While a number of films created by Joel and Ethan Coen have enjoyed a reasonable amount of success, many seem to have forgotten most of their work prior to Fargo (1996). The obvious explanation is that several of them didn’t do all that well at the box office, but then so did the Big Lebowski (1998). Among the more obscure of these is  Barton Fink (1991), a strange psychological drama with dark comedic elements. It has been a fairly rare find until it was included in a DVD collection of Coen Brother movies. Is it worth while addition?

That depends on tastes. Barton Fink is hard to classify because it is so unusual and unique. Chances are that anyone who liked Fight Club (1999) or the Secret Window (2004) will enjoy this movie, because it shares the psychological breakdown those two later films did. In fact, John Turturro played crucial roles in both the Secret Window and Barton Fink. However, it was much more subtle and abstract in Barton Fink, which was probably why it lost money. It also functions as a dark comedy rather than a suspense thiller, so that makes the experience even more unusual. Barton Fink did win an award at the Cannes Film Festival, though.

This film is about a popular and ambitious Broadway playwright in the 1930’s, who tries to make the transition into Hollywood and immediately starts to have problems. Barton Fink, played by John Turturro, has made his big name writing plays about “the common man”, but is disatisfied with his work despite his success. When he decides to go to Hollywood, He arrives at an old, seemingly empty hotel. Over time, the hotel becomes something of a character itself. When he establishes his stay there, he finally recieves his assignment from the product studio- a Wallace Beery wrestling picture. Never having seen any movies before, Fink quickly succumbs to writer’s block. Big time writer’s block, too. John Goodman plays Fink’s neighbor, Charlie Meadows, who despite his good intentions always manages to distract Fink. Ironically, he also happens to personify the “common man” Fink aspires to write about. Eventually, the pressure gets to Fink and things start to go a little crazy.

The characters that populate Fink’s world are brilliant charactures of Hollywood. It is really easy to see how Barton Fink can be so confused by studio protocol. These people are brutal, complicated, and extremely unpredictable! Turturro himself won Best Actor at the Cannes for his performance, but I think John Goodman was at his best in this movie. Even Walter Sobchak isn’t quite as…dynamic, as Charlie is. Trust me. Sobchak was unpredictable and intense, but Charlie can be almost terrifying sometimes. There were moments where Goodman was truly awesome to behold, particularly in the film’s climax.

Of course, there is always the eerie, haunted hotel. The hotel is by far the most memorable part of the film, if only because it is so creepy. Entire academic papers could be written about enviroments like this hotel. Unfortunately, for the rest of us, this is the part that gets rather abstract. You see, it is probably best to think of the hotel as being Fink’s mind. As he experiences writer’s block for the first time, the room itself starts to come undone. As Barton Fink becomes more stressed, the hotel becomes more like Hell.

The only real problem with this film is that sometimes things happen that don’t make much sense, at least not at first. It has its abstract moments. There is alot to interpret here, whether you’re looking for some deep artsy meaning or just trying to figure out what is going on. This does not make the movie unwatchable by any means, but it will distract some viewers.

I personally had a bad case of writer’s block several months ago, so I could relate with anxiety that comes with it. Perhaps that experience has influenced my view of Barton Fink, but even so this was a very interesting and exceptionally unique movie for its time. Like I said, if you liked the Secret Window, chances are you will like this as well. Every once in a while it is good to watch a movie that can make you think, like the Sixth Sense, and like the Sixth Sense (1999), you may even find yourself watching this twice.

8.0 out of 10.0