Barton Fink (1991) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for profanity and some violence Running Time: 116 min.
Cast: John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Tony Shalhoub
Director: Joel and Ethen Coen
Screenplay: Joel and Ethan Coen
Barton Fink isn't the first film about writer's block, but it may be the best. Reportedly, the story was inspired by the difficulties of crafting Miller's Crossing and with 20th Century Fox's constant niggling about their script and vision, or lack thereof. It's a complex work, and not altogether satisfying in the traditional sense, but for those who understand what it's like to be under great pressure to be creative and coming up empty, this probably will strike a resonant chord.
The main story itself is set in 1941, where Hollywood has been recruiting some of the best playwrights in the country to come work for them. One of these playwrights is Barton Fink, a conflicted artsy intellectual that has been given the chore of writing a script for something he knows nothing about, wrestling. By his own choice, Fink decides to stay in a dive of a hotel, the Earle, where it seems the distractions certainly don't help the fact that he is at a loss on where to begin in his script. He soon befriends one of his neighbors down the hall, an insurance salesman named Charlie Meadows, but this proves to be just momentary diversion from the ills of the writer's block he is suffering from, and the pressure from his studio to deliver in short fashion.
Barton Fink will probably always remain the Coens' most beguiling work, probably too artsy for most viewers to find good footing while watching. It is a comedy, albeit a mostly somber and sour one, so those looking for some of the zanier antics they see in films like Raising Arizona or Fargo will be off-put by the curious lack of energy or drive throughout much of the film. I would argue that the lack of forward movement is precisely the point of the film, as it is about a man who finds an inability to progress despite his amazing and prolific talent in the field.
If you come here seeking answers to everything that you don't understand while watching the film, I must apologize. Although I do have a plausible theory, I'm afraid this would involve spoilers and would deprive some of finding their own answers the the mysteries that lie mostly unrevealed by the end of the movie. I will just say, that writer's block to a writer is probably a hellish existence, and if internal feelings were to be also felt externally, one might gain the same feeling and tone that is exhibited in the Hotel Earle of Barton's world.
Barton Fink is very highly recommended, but to only a small fragment of filmgoers out there. Obviously, fans of the Coen Brothers will watch and probably enjoy, and those who love paranoia films done in an artistic fashion will also be pleased. Viewers who are sufficiently knowledgeable in the Hollywood system, particularly in the 30s and 40s should also seek this out. However, if none of this pertains to you, my advice is to tread cautiously, as it's a comedy with the subtlest of wit and a thriller with the most perplexing of motivations, and many will feel cheated that the film offers meager explanation and lack of satisfying resolutions.
Regardless of your level of satisfaction in the finished product, there's no denying that it's an enigmatic experience unlike any other, and typically off-beat, in the grandest Coen Brothers-style.
© 2003 Vince Leo