Ethan Coen

Barton Fink

1991

20th Century Fox

Directed by Joel Coen
Written by Ethan and Joel Coen
Produced by Ethan Coen

Joel and Ethan Coen are quite simply masters at what they do; which is making entertaining movies that have a lot more going on than you see the first time. They’ve made some of my favorite films such as “Raising Arizona”, “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, and the magnificent “Miller’s Crossing”, which is one of the best gangster movies ever made. If you haven’t seen any of their movies, you need to rectify that error and Netflix them.

BARTON FINK was written when the Brothers Coen suffered writer’s block while working on the screenplay for “Miller’s Crossing” and all I can say is this: if this is the kind of story they came up with when they were blocked, they oughta get blocked more often.

Barton Fink is a New York playwright enjoying success on Broadway with his latest play in the year 1941. His agent wrangles a deal for Barton to go work in Hollywood. Capital Studios is offering Barton $2,000 a week to write movies for them. And back in those days, $2,000 a week was a fortune. Barton doesn’t want to go but his agent wisely advises him that if he takes the deal, he can put food on his table and keep a roof over his head while Barton writes the stuff he really wants to write. Barton finally accepts and goes out to Hollywood where he takes a room in The Hotel Earle, a really odd establishment that seems to have only two employees; a decrepit elevator operator who appears to be nearly ossified and the cheerful desk clerk Chet (Steve Buscemi)

Barton immediately catches writer’s block since he’s never written a movie script before. Hell, he doesn’t even go to movies and his first assignment is to script a wrestling movie starring Wallace Beery. Barton seeks help from a variety of characters such as the alcoholic writer W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney) and producer Ben Geisler (Tony Shaloub)

Part of Barton’s problem is that his thinking too much is getting in the way of his job. You see, he claims he wants to write about the common man but he actually knows bupkis about his intended subject. This is pointed out in a series of scenes with the producer Ben Geisler who replies to Barton’s dilemma with exasperation: “What do you need to know? It’s a wrestling picture! It’s not  Hamlet!”

Geisler has a terrific scene where he takes Barton to lunch and advises him to talk to another writer and Barton asks where does he find a writer in Hollywood. Geisler replies with one of my Top Ten Favorite Lines Of All Time; “This town is lousy with ‘em…throw a rock and you’ll hit one. And do me a favor, Fink…when you throw that rock…throw it hard.” I watch Tony Shaloub in this movie and in “Monk” and it’s amazing to me that it’s the same actor playing these characters.

Barton has a next-door neighbor in the Hotel Earle, an insurance salesman named Charlie Meadows who tries to help Barton out with his writer’s block. Hell, Charlie figures that you can’t get more common man than him, but he soon finds that Barton is more interested in ranting about his own theories on what the common man wants than actually finding out what the common man thinks. The theme of Barton’s ignorance about what he thinks writing is supposed to be runs through the entire movie and is handled in some very funny scenes. There’s one in which Barton having a picnic with Mayhew and his secretary and Barton is spouting hyper-intellectual felgercarb about writing and how it’s this divine calling and he cannot separate himself from his art. Mayhew gives him this really pitying look and says;  “I just like making things up.”

But BARTON FINK isn’t just about a writer’s trials and tribulations in Hollywood. It’s also about a grisly, horrifying murder and a frightening revelation concerning the jovial, amiable Charlie Meadows that just may have infernal origins. If you’ve seen BARTON FINK then you know exactly what I’m talking about and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for those of you who haven’t. But at the same time BARTON FINK is also a very funny movie and sometimes you don’t know if you should be laughing or not. And indeed, there are scenes where Barton himself doesn’t know if he should be taking the people he’s talking to seriously or not.  Such as two police detectives who appear to take a perverse delight in the way they verbally ping-pong their interrogation of Barton back and forth like Abbott and Costello doing “Who’s On First?”

One of the fun things about this movie is that there’s always something new I see every time I view it (which is about once a year) and I delight in the performances of John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis and John Mahoney (who delivers the funniest rendition of ‘Old Black Joe’ I’ve ever heard) as well as the way the story is told. Jon Polito is also on hand playing the virtual slave of a fierce studio boss (Michael Lerner) And if anybody can figure out just what the final scene of the movie is about, email me and give a brother a clue, wouldja?

116 minutes
Barton Fink is rated R for language and mature themes. There’s no graphic sex in the movie and the implied violence is more grisly than any violence we actually see.