Barton Fink (1991)
You Have to Think About Fink
I could tell you stories to curl your hair, but it looks like you've already heard 'em - Charlie
To be fair the Coen brothers are quite special, they seem to be fearless when it comes to what genre of movies they tackle and they always strive to make something special, something which is not only visually brilliant but also clever. And that is good but it can also go wrong when a movie becomes too clever which for me is "Barton Fink". Now I have listened to various people's views on "Barton Fink" some say it is symbolic of the Coen's own careers, others have said it is a general condemnation of the movie industry whilst I have also heard some say it is symbolic of WWII and Hitler's rise. Maybe it is these things, maybe it is something else but unless you get what "Barton Fink" is about you are going to be left with a movie which whilst stylish and darkly funny seems disjointed and pointless. It is a case that the cleverness is too much or at least in my opinion is too much.
The year is 1941 and New York writer Barton Fink (John Turturro - The Color of Money) becomes the talk of a town with his popular play, so popular that his agent gets a call from Hollywood and soon Barton is in L.A. on contract to a studio as a writer. Wanting to write about "the common man" Barton shuns all the pleasantries he could have and stays in the run down and creepy Hotel Earle where he makes friends with Charlie Meadows (John Goodman - King Ralph), an insurance salesman in the next room. But Barton finds writing a screenplay about a wrestler difficult, suffering writer's block. That is until a strange series of events not only turn his life upside down but get the creative juices flowing.
On face value "Barton Fink" is the story of Jewish writer Barton who wants to write about "the common man" but having agreed to go on contract to a film studio in Hollywood finds himself unable of writing the simple pap needed for a screenplay about a wrestler. As such we watch as he meets various people from the insurance salesman in the next hotel room to the alcoholic writer and his secretary who is the real genius behind the writer's books. Now all this does come across as being a bit of a stab at the movie industry, we watch as studio boss Jack Lipnick just wants Fink to write something simple which will put bums on seats and we can see alcoholic writer W.P. Mayhew as someone whose soul has been destroyed by being part of the industry. And I am sure you can read more into this as those who are up on the career of the Coen brothers probably can spot some symbolism going on as well.
Now the other side of this story seems to be about Barton himself a man who wants to write about "the common man" but is so blocked off doesn't really want to listen to the common man. He is basically an artist who thinks he is writing for the people but he is writing for his version of the people. And as such I am sure there is a bucket load of symbolism going on here as well for those who enjoy movies with hidden depths.
But the trouble is that whilst on the surface "Barton Fink" is a good looking movie and the styling is first class, unless you want to dig deeper for the meaning of all of this it doesn't work. It seems almost self indulgent as nothing much really happens other than we watch Barton meet some people and struggle to write. Basically it's not simple entertainment, it is artsy and maybe that is part of the joke an artsy movie about an artsy writer who thinks he is appealing to the masses.
But that is not all there is to "Barton Fink" as there is the second half, a more in your face and commercial second half as things actually happen, the sort of things which appeal to the masses. I won't go into much detail as this second half turns things completely on its head but it is such a contrast to the slow first half that it feels crazy. Of course there is more depth to this second half than just what you see and various elements are hinted at during that slow first half but again it isn't very clever. And again maybe this is the Coen's being a little bit too clever because whilst some people will lap up the hidden meaning and enjoy debating it, for the masses I don't see them getting it.
Now for those who watch "Barton Fink" to just be entertained it still achieves this through the humour, styling and most importantly the acting with the likes of John Goodman, John Mahoney and Michael Lerner all putting in first class performances. But it is the versatile and amusing John Turturro as Barton Fink who really makes it watch able as visually he is quirky yet so is his character, from various mannerisms, the awkwardness he displays through to the way he struggles writing. It is because Turturro fills the screen that for those who don't care for those hidden depths will still find "Barton Fink" entertaining if a little bit weird.
What this all boils down to is that "Barton Fink" is without a doubt a very clever movie with various depths which can be interpreted in different ways. But maybe it is a little bit too clever as unless you lock in on what is being said between the lines it ends up being a stylish but very disjointed movie with the performance of John Turturro being the saving grace.
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