Directed by: Joel Coen
Written by: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Jon Polito
The writing process has its peaks and valleys of when inspiration can strike. Even I find myself stuck when just writing reviews, so I cannot fathom what it must be like to create original content. With that inexplicable wall that hits us, Barton Fink explores it for all of its madness in order to display how the strangest of things could light that fire within us.
After garnering big success as a Broadway playwright, Barton Fink (John Turturro) signs a contract with a Hollywood studio to come to Los Angeles and write screenplays. Given his first task, he stays in a cheap hotel where he struggles to put his thoughts to the page. It certainly does not help that he has a loud neighbor.
Barton Fink wasted no time in luring us into a spellbinding experience that explores a variety of topics that would give any writer incredible anxiety. The titular character, portrayed expertly well by John Turturo, writes like a genius but lacks the confidence in his work. He may excel with what appears on the page, but one would not know it by speaking with him. The opportunity to go to Los Angeles gives him a change of pace and the opportunity to make a pretty penny with his writing, even if he looks down on the subject matter. Instead of his dense work that hits the stage, he needs to write something with broad appeal that connects to a different audience.
The experience of Barton writing this film reveals more about his personality than anything else. He steps into this Hollywood arena and proves that he looks down upon the people for whom this work will be produced. As he expresses to his neighbor, Charlie Meadows (John Goodman) he has affection for “the common man.” The definition as to what that means can be left to the interpretation but he obviously does not see himself in that way. A bit of a pretentious view, but it creates a divide between him and Charlie, and the work by these two actors in their interactions cannot be understated.
Goodman and Turturro pair up so well, as they represent two different types of people and how they each end up at the same place. While we dive into the psyche of Barton, Charlie remains a mystery for most of the film, until we learn something quite troubling about him. Goodman and Turturro have formed a good working relationship and it would not be the first with the Coen Brothers behind the camera. Their juxtaposition says so much about how far apart they may be and even when this relationship gets a bit odd, it provides Barton the opportunity to actually put something to the page with a looming deadline.
Set back in the 1940s, Barton Fink shows just how little Hollywood has changed, as it shows the battle of art vs. commerce. The executives paying the salaries of the writers want a return on their investment while the artists want to create something meaningful. Barton created significant and consequential work on Broadway but it did not pay the same way financially. In a way, he feels like he’s selling off his soul, but his interactions with different figures help him crack this code. The executive, Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) becomes gets funnier each time he appears on screen. He intimidates Barton but also appears to be aggressively supportive. Each word of encouragement feels like a threat that Barton better deliver a great product for having invested so much money on him.
The Coen Brothers are simply out of this world with the type of films they put together. With this effort, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and swept the major awards including the Palme D’Or and Best Director, they prove that they consistently release spectacular work. They would explore insecure characters like Barton in the future, but they’re always so densely written in a way that makes you feel like you know them after such a short period of time. The trials and tribulations they encounter show their resilience and weaknesses as well. This directing duo knows what they’re doing and putting together this psychological inspection of a writer’s mind caught up in some wild situation larger than himself entertains and satisfies in so many ways.
With all of the madness you can handle, enter the mind of Barton Fink as he tries to juggle this new career choice and environment. Things will get fiery but there’s plenty of oxygen to be had from the incredible directors and actors who put together a tremendous film of insecurity and artistic expression.