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‘Barton Fink’

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 21, 1991


Joel Coen
John Turturro;
John Goodman;
John Mahoney;
Judy Davis;
Jon Polito;
Michael Lerner;
Tony Shaloub

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What "Raising Arizona" was to baby lust, "Barton Fink" is to writer's block -- a rapturously funny, strangely bittersweet, moderately horrifying and, yes, truly apt description of the condition and its symptoms. Barton, whose last name literally means blabbermouth, is an earnest young New York playwright whose widely praised new play, "Bare Ruined Choirs," has drawn notice in Hollywood, the land where greater men than Fink have found their choirs silenced, their inspiration dried up faster than wet nylons under strong sun.

A deco-period film by Ethan and Joel Coen, "Barton Fink" is in fact their own creative solution to the writer's block that plagued them during the making of "Miller's Crossing." A triumph for the offbeat, grimly funny brothers, it reveals in its mythic fashion the vagaries of the creative process that plague every artist.

The giving and gifted John Turturro stars as Fink, a self-absorbed and pompous naif who loses his bearings when he accepts a lucrative position with Capitol Pictures. Unwilling to give up all his snobbish principles, he checks into the threadbare Earle Hotel, a regal dump where he wrestles with his conscience, his assignment and his new next-door neighbor, Charlie Meadows.

John Goodman plays this gregarious fellow, a traveling insurance salesman whose frequent intrusions give Fink a not unwelcome excuse for not writing. Meadows, who seems to embody the qualities of the common man whom Fink so arrogantly imagines he represents in his art, becomes the writer's closest confidant and eventually his wildly unpredictable muse.

There is the decidedly rank smell of brimstone in the air at the Earle (its slogan is "Stay a Night or a Lifetime"), the primary setting for this latest version of the Mephistopheles story. It's 1941 in Los Angeles and a heat wave has settled over the city like a sticky gravy. It's so hot the wallpaper is peeling off in Fink's room, the paste running down the walls in gooey rivulets. That this is a leaky, living hell there is no doubt.

The Earle is also alive with the sounds of night: the creaking of ceilings and the protests of bed springs, grunts, thumps, screams, wails and wheezing doors. Decorated in ghastly shades -- maroon, olive drab and bloodstain brown -- the Earle seems an organic being as crucial to this haunting tale as the spirit ship was to "The Flying Dutchman." A gurgling, heaving purgatory, it seems a most likely place to teach understanding and punish arrogance.

And Barton Fink is assuredly a smug whelp deserving of a lesson. He claims to be interested in the stories of the common man, in establishing a theater for the masses. Yet when Charlie says, "I can tell you stories that would curl your hair," Barton, all wrapped up in how magnanimous he is, barely notices. Dire consequences await.

The Coens have as much compassion as contempt for their hero, who looks vaguely like a cross between the brothers, a goofy intellectual at once shyly baffled and supercilious. Neither a talker nor a listener, Barton sometimes calls up visions of the kidnapped baby in "Raising Arizona." Fink, Turturro shows us, is only a babe among the fast-talking big kids of Hollywood. Still, he's his own weird man, a victim less of the system than of his own unexamined leftist ideals.

The movie takes an irreverent poke at the industry, setting the hero against such marvelous old-style blowhards as Capitol Pictures' studio boss, Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) and the slippery producer Ben Geisler (Tony Shalhoub), who has been assigned to supervise Barton's first film. Puzzled at Fink's reluctance to begin the script, Geisler loses patience: "Wallace Beery, wrestling picture. What do ya need, a road map?"

Barton next turns to a fellow writer, W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), for advice. A Faulknerian novelist who drinks heavily and abuses his secretary, Audrey (Judy Davis), Mayhew also sees through the posturing of Fink. Audrey, part belle, part dame, tries to nurture the younger man's talent, but her efforts unfortunately come to a very bad end, which propels the tale to its obscurely symbolic but ultimately penetrable conclusion.

The winner of an unprecedented three prizes at the Cannes Film Festival this year, "Barton Fink" is certainly one of the year's best and most intriguing films. Though it defies genre, it seems to work best as a tart self-portrait, a screwball film noir that expresses the Coens' own alienation from Hollywood. A cineaste's landmark on a par with "Blue Velvet," this is an experience to savor over and over.

"Barton Fink" is rated R for violence.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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