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‘Barton Fink’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 23, 1991

 


Director:
Joel Coen
Cast:
John Turturro;
John Goodman;
John Mahoney;
Judy Davis;
Jon Polito;
Michael Lerner;
Tony Shaloub
R
Under 17 restricted


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When it's over, "Barton Fink" feels like a sophisticated joke you didn't get but laughed at anyway for fear of looking stupid. Did you miss something, you wonder, or is this movie really just about writer's block, Hollywood's philistine industry and the unfathomable menace of a certain Los Angeles hotel?

But if "Fink" lacks cumulative punch, its fighting power is a technical knockout. The film displays the superb atmospheric abilities brotherly team Joel and Ethan Coen also brought to "Blood Simple," "Raising Arizona" and "Miller's Crossing."

Loaded with ominousness and allegorical attitude, it feels like a European vision of the ugly New World. Which may explain why it won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, as well as best director and actor prizes for Joel Coen and John Turturro, respectively.

What is it about, exactly? Set in 1941, it's a gradual descent into hell for Jewish playwright Barton Fink (Turturro), who answers the Mephistophelean call to write for Hollywood. On the wave of a big Broadway success, the self-absorbed, socialistic writer thinks he can bring integrity to Babylon. But blustery studio head Michael Lerner commissions him to do a "wrestling picture" starring Wallace Beery. Turturro holes up in a seedy hotel only to find acute writer's block, his muse taunted by wallpaper that oozes gloop and a kitschy beach painting of a woman looking out to sea.

Turturro's Hollywood experience includes amusing, ego-bruising conferences with Lerner (a dead ringer for Louis B. Mayer), his flunky Jon Polito and jaded producer Tony Shalhoub. He also encounters John Mahoney, a boozy, Faulknerian writer whose literary reputation is propped up by concubine and secretary Judy Davis. But Turturro's most significant relationship is with hotel neighbor John Goodman, a bulky insurance salesman with boorish but endearing ways. He's exactly the kind of struggling common man Turturro pretentiously addresses his art to. Or is he?

"Fink" is drawn with expert menace, as Turturro's deadline pressure mounts and Goodman's more disturbing side becomes apparent. The movie's abundant with dark (and disgusting!) Coen-isms: the curling wallpaper with a life of its own; the infected pus that suddenly seeps from Goodman's ear; the hotel service bell with a ring that never seems to die out. The Coens have a knack for creating an out-there world that is uncomfortably real.

Turturro's frizzy, bespectacled appearance (intentionally suggesting playwright George S. Kaufman) creates an appropriately weird, antiheroic presence. As the garrulous studio boss, Lerner is also tremendous. But the highest plaudits go to Goodman. Despite loathsome overexposure on film and television, he never fails to get a rise out of a performance. In this case, his pumpkin-shaped body and booming voice create an engaging, head-scratching working man -- with ominous undertones. At one point, he tells Turturro he's the only surviving member of his family. "What's that expression?" he says, tapping his forehead with a meaty forefinger. "Me, myself and I."

If the Coens are heavy on style, they weigh far lighter on substance. That picture of the beach girl, for instance, is given a deep significance at the movie's conclusion. But it feels more like a punchline for punchline's sake, a trumped-up coda. Things reach a definite high point -- an incendiary one at that. But it all adds up to something small. Like the mysterious, bound package Goodman gives Turturro (the contents are never revealed), the Coens isolate a small area of interest, bind it with psycho-atmospheric finesse, then wait for something significant to emerge. Even after a second viewing of this movie, it doesn't.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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