Jan 31

Retro Review: Barton Fink (1991)

The story on this film is that while Joel and Ethan Coen were writing “Miller’s Crossing” (1990) they hit a massive case of writer’s block. To help them get past this they wrote this little film about a writer with writer’s block. It must have worked, because they resumed work on “Miller’s Crossing” and it is arguably one of the finest mob films ever made.

So what about “Barton Fink”? With their script in hand, they followed “Miller’s Crossing” by making their little experiment. The story, on the surface, sounds simple – New York in 1941, a successful playwright, Barton Fink, who writes plays about the common man, gets taken out to Hollywood to write motion pictures. He moves into a run down hotel and gets his first assignment, write a Wallace Beery wrestling picture. From his first day in Hollywood, Barton is struck by a doozy of a case of writer’s block. He believes that he is needed in New York and he has sold out to Hollywood. His room is hot and dingy, and his neighbour, Charlie the insurance salesman, is a loud over bearing and he is being eaten alive by mosquitoes every night.

The above premise is deceptive, the film isn’t about the surface story, it is about the turmoil building in Barton’s self imposed isolation. It is about his inability to relate with real people and it is about his own self importance. Ultimately it is about sanity or lack of it. This film goes to some very dark places and leaves you there to find your own way back.

The Coen brothers excel at oddball characters and they found their muse with John Turturro as Barton. Turturro’s nervous energy and self doubt is palpable. Turturro’s Barton can’t relate to John Goodman as Charlie the salesman, even though Charlie embodies the everyman that Barton purports to represent. Add to this a standout performance by Michael Lerner as Lipnick, the studio chief. His over the top, mad as a hatter performance earned him and Oscar nomination.

“Barton Fink” won’t appeal to everyone, this is an independent art house film that that defies being locked into a genre. If you are willing to go on Barton’s voyage to crazyland you might find that you are watching a work of genius. If you want an easy to digest summer blockbuster, stay clear.

Originally published on My Year With Movies