This review definitely has the Judge Daryl Loomis feeling...clammy and a little bit greasy.
I'll show you the life of the mind!
Many novels have been written about writing and many films have been made about filmmaking, but few films have been made about writing. The writing process isn't exactly a cinematic thrill ride, and the idea of writer's block is an esoteric subject that is difficult to depict. A successful film that deals with its effects seems like pie in the sky, but this is exactly what Joel and Ethan Coen set out to describe in their fourth feature. By combining the strange world of early Hollywood with a free-form storytelling style, they shine a brilliant light on the writing process and solidified the style that really gave their following moves that "Coen Brothers feel."
Facts of the Case
Barton Fink (John Turturro, Mo' Better Blues) has just debuted his new play to great acclaim. He writes "for the common man" about "real" people living "real" lives. His success draws the attention of Hollywood producers, who offer him a contract to bring that "Barton Fink feel" to the pictures. His first project, however, is not a high-minded film about the common man; instead it's a wrestling picture with Wallace Beery. Barton knows nothing about wrestling and is beset with writer's block, unable to write a word with the studio execs looking over his shoulder. His depression is somewhat relieved when he meets his neighbor, Charlie (John Goodman, King Ralph). Charlie is the common man Barton has looked for, though he's too blind to see it. When Charlie turns out to be anything but common, Barton's depression spins out of control right along with this story.
Barton Fink is a jerk of a character. I've always looked at him sympathetically, but had a very different view of him this time. I can still sympathize with the writer's block, but he brings it on himself. He doesn't care about a Wallace Beery wrestling picture, but who would? The producers only care about their investment and Barton should only care about getting paid. This is contract writing: sometimes, you're just not going to care about your assignment. The idea of adding that "Barton Fink feel" into a wrestling movie is absurd, but all these producers really want is a script, and Barton's totally unwilling to put in the work. For all the less-skilled screenwriters who have penned identical scripts, Barton is too pretentious to lower himself to their level. Even when he meets Bill Mayhew (John Mahoney, TV's Frasier, in a role based on William Faulkner), whom Barton calls America's greatest living author and who himself has penned many B-pictures, Barton still can't conceive of writing it. While still viewing Mayhew with a kind of childlike reverence, Barton looks at him as a sad old drunk writing for the wrong reasons.
For Barton, the only reason to write is for the common man to make a difference in their lives. In reality, however, he writes about the common man for the elite. A wrestling picture is nothing if not for the common man but, because the subject isn't interesting to Barton's elite, it's not interesting to Barton. He befriends Charlie, the stereotype of a common man, but can't bother to listen to Charlie's stories. Barton prefers to tell Charlie what it's like to be common. Before he can admit defeat and return home though, his world comes crashing down around him in a firestorm of surreal imagery. The Coens reference Preston Sturges' 1941 classic Sullivan's Travels in a few films. O Brother, Where Art Thou?, for instance, shares its title with the film that John L. Sullivan (played in Sturges' film by Joel McRae) longs to make. In Barton Fink, Barton's desire to write for the common man mimics Sullivan's reason to write. Sullivan, however, is willing to do what it takes to learn about the poor, and Barton is fooling himself about his desires.
All the Coen Brothers' films have strange characters and quirky charm, and this makes their movies consistently delightful. Barton Fink has this to such a degree that it verges on the bizarre. The story begins in linear fashion as Barton is lured to Hollywood, meets people, and gets into trouble. As sensible as it starts, however, it becomes as stream-of-consciousness as any movie in memory. While it comes dangerously close to random, this is its strongest virtue. We are shown the life of Barton's mind; a mind that becomes more confused as the character progressively breaks down. The intricacy in the set design and the construction of the characters show a consistent, if strange, tone and a strong grounding for the meandering story to work off of. The details of the Hotel Earle, where Barton and Charlie stay, are of particular note. The paper peeling from the walls, the constant noises in the pipes and the stationary with the slogan "A day or a lifetime" that shows its age when the pencil falls to reveal years of fading give the film a claustrophobic feel and help to drive Barton mad.
Not just anybody could sell the strangeness of these characters and the casting is brilliant. Many of the actors have worked with the brothers in multiple films, and they are at their very best here. Turturro is one of my favorite actors, and his characterization of the title role is one of the main reasons why. His complete immersion into this frantic character is a sight to behold, and it's difficult for me, when I see him in other films, to not associate the actor with this role. Goodman puts in the absolute best performance of his career. His ability to switch from fun-loving teddy bear to monstrous grizzly is scary, to say the least. The supporting cast is equally good, with Steve Buscemi (Trees Lounge) as the standout. Chet the bellhop is outstandingly strange, and his business card that simply says "Chet!" is another golden detail that makes this film. There are too many great performances to mention here, but Barton Fink is a surreal screwball comedy that hits its mark on all counts.
Fox's release of Barton Fink is five years old and shows its age. The anamorphic transfer has a fair amount of grain and edge enhancement, but the colors are deep and the overall detail in the picture is there. The stereo sound does its job, allowing the dialog and Carter Burwell's great score to come through clearly. A surround mix would have been nice, especially at the end of the film, but what is there is fine. The deleted scenes included as extras are interesting and well put together to give a little more characterization, but nothing is earth shattering. In a good move, Fox places the scenes alongside where they would have come in the finished film. The scenes start in black and white and switch to color so we know exactly where and how the particular scenes have been changed. Trailers and a photo gallery round out the disc.
Barton Fink is my favorite of the Coen Brothers' films and one of my favorite movies of the 1990s. The Coens are the only filmmakers still willing to make old school screwball comedies, and they do it as well as anybody ever has. The surrealist and self-reflexive touches make them accessible to modern audiences. This film is well performed, excellently written, and beautifully shot. It's a great film that gets better with each viewing.
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