If the Coens had fiction and the intellectual dents of the anarchic human brain on the mind with Miller’s Crossing, they doubled-down with Barton Fink. Probably the Coens’ strangest and most esoteric piece, Barton Fink is both a wry exploration of the “troubled artist” trope and a purposefully artificial construct to throw a kvetch Hollywood’s way. It’s a formalist’s dream, but it uses formalism to shoot formalism in the kneecaps and poke the wound a few hundred times. It’s no Sunset Blvd, but it’s one of the few Hollywood parables with the chutzpah to dive into the cynical stew of a Wilder and never come up for breath.
We’ve all heard this sort of story before, because Hollywood loves to self-aggrandize even in the negative. Barton Fink (John Turturro), an NY playwright, goes to LA to break into screenwriting. In the midst of seemingly trying his hardest to do everything but that, he meets Charlie (John Goodman), a neighbor whose local haunt happens to be Barton’s room. Along the way, Charlie teaches Barton a little about Hollywood living (namely that it ain’t). But the fact that we’ve all heard this story before is exactly what the Coens’ are preying on, for if we’ve heard it before, we’ve never heard it from a two-headed soothsayer.
Barton Fink begins with Barton Fink, and what the two authors who’ve created him want to do to abuse him. He’s one of the Coens’ finest characters, a fascinatingly neurotic loner ably played by consistent Coen Brothers collaborator John Turturro (by 1991 knee-deep on his way to becoming a stand-in Coen Brothers version of Alvy Singer, albeit more sniveling). However, there’s a key difference: here, the filmmakers don’t have sympathy for their lead character. They only find pity. He rants and raves about his writer’s block and the difficulties he has selling a story to the immolating, hollow, bogus Hollywood machine, but the film subtly undercuts his character by rendering him almost inconsequential, nothing short of a phony himself, an eternal victim without the backbone of the true New York underdog he claims as an identity. Ultimately, he is as artificial as the Hollywood cronies he has to deal with, or the famous Faulkner-esque writer he, and the Coens, admire, who is here rendered deranged fool. If the Coens are the most literate director-writers working in America today, they aren’t above tearing so-called literate Hollywood sell-outs a new one, and implicating themselves in the process.
If the script and the Coens’ nervy dialogue that keels quirk over into caustic despair are in full effect for making a story that trades on the dialectics of the interior (the mind) and the exterior (Hollywood superficiality), then the writing has a partner in crime that deserves at least an equal share of the profits: the film’s phenomenal formalism. The story, is, after all, that of artifice and reality more than anything else, and the Coens give us a visual construct to match, the kind of obvious stagecraft and symmetry that would fit in a 40’s play but doubles as a theatrical life-of-the-mind for a man who tries to define his mind in terms of Hollywood stagecraft and falsity and must inevitably succumb to it. Barton is so committed to his airs that he defines everything in terms of clear precision and composition, and our filmmakers rather ruefully mock him by boxing him off in frames that gobble him up or push up against him to rattle his brain past the “headache” setting.
It’s an imperfectly perfect motion picture, all of the weird pauses, stop-starts, rambling incoherences, and tangents a mile wide eventually caught up in the Coens’ whirling dervish of elliptical malformations that spin and bend inwards on one another. It’s sort of a buddy movie, kind of a film noir, and it makes sideways glances at headcase trauma as it passes by narrative form on the street. It’s never really comfortable with anything, but it’s always functionally comfortable with itself. It’s a rather wry and wonderfully deceptive film filled with heaving, aching, desperate touches shrouded within the mind of a man who doesn’t know the meaning of the words he’s devoted his life to. It also features perhaps the Coens’ most biting devil, played by John Goodman with a genial zaniness. And any Coen film can be judged in quality and nature by the luster of its devil; this one is a loopy, probing huckster that plays with fire and loves every nervy minute of it, and the film follows suit. Its biggest joke, in all, is that its Hollywood devil, for all of the lies he spews throughout the film, genuinely enjoys the minutiae of his false life. He may be the film’s most honest character for this reason. He’s certainly far more honest than Barton Fink will ever be