Wrapped in plain brown paper and no bigger than a typically swelled Hollywood head, the box looks ordinary. It’s not, of course. This is a movie from the Coen brothers, and as you may have gleaned from their earlier work (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing), the Coens do not traffic in the mundane. The box figures prominently in the climax of Barton Fink, the partly hilarious, partly horrific, totally mesmerizing new film from these Hardy Boys from hell.
Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), a good-natured slob of a traveling salesman, has entrusted the mystery parcel to Barton Fink (John Turturro), a creatively blocked screenwriter who lives next door to him in a shabby Los Angeles hotel, circa 1942. With perverse glee, the Coens never let us see what’s in the box. But they drop dark hints – Barton Fink is the most chilling Hollywood comedy since Sunset Boulevard. What starts as a slyly ambitious sendup of Faust – Fink is a serious New York playwright tempted to sell his soul for success in movies – ends as an apocalyptic vision of a world ablaze with hypocrisy. Though Fink rarely leaves his room, the Coens have fashioned a tale that encompasses betrayal, murder, genocide, world war and figures as diverse as Louis B. Mayer and Adolf Hitler.
Sometimes enigmatic to the point of exasperation, Barton Fink [Cont. on 74] [Cont. from 71] is not summer fun on the order of City Slickers. But the attention the film demands of its audience is richly rewarded. At the Cannes Film Festival in May, Barton Fink walked off with the top prizes for film, director and actor (Turturro) – the first such hat trick in the festival’s forty-four-year history. But even that victory could backfire by branding the film as art-house material. Despite raves, Blood Simple (1984) and Raising Arizona (1987) never went beyond cult status. And the ticket buyers for last year’s acclaimed Miller’s Crossing could all gather comfortably in Fink’s tiny hotel room. This public indifference to two of the most gifted filmmakers in the business is mystifying.
The Minnesota-born Coens are most frequently hoisted on the petard of their own curriculum vitae. Joel Coen, 36, is a graduate of New York University’s film school. Ethan Coen, 34, has a degree in philosophy from Princeton but shares his brother’s lifelong obsession with genre movies. Blood Simple was their take on film noir, Raising Arizona the screwball comedy and Miller’s Crossing the gangster epic. Coen bashers consider this raiding of Hollywood’s past to be grounds for dismissing the brothers as clever showoffs trying to hide the emotional emptiness of their films.
It’s a facile charge, easily disproved when you consider the depth of feeling in the characters played by Frances McDormand in Blood Simple, Holly Hunter in Raising Arizona and Gabriel Byrne in Miller’s Crossing. What is true is that these characters are unsympathetic (a cheating wife, a kidnapper, a hood) and don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves. The Coens make you dig to discover someone’s true nature. That used to be called characterization. These days, with one-note movies like Regarding Henry, Dying Young and The Doctor ladling out sentiment like butter on popcorn, complexity is regarded as a failure to communicate.
A more disturbing charge against the Coens – in that it has some validity – is their tendency to put style ahead of substance. In their first two films, the Coens did everything but swing the camera from the ceiling to call attention to their technical prowess. Miller’s Crossing took a more subdued approach, and Barton Fink continues in that vein. Except for two look-at-me-Ma dolly shots (one into a trombone at a USO dance, the other down a hotel drain), this is the Coens’ most adventurously low-key film.
The brothers conceived Barton Fink while suffering a severe case of writer’s block during the writing of Miller’s Crossing. The Fink story was both a distraction and a way to wrestle with their demons. They imagined the title character as a driven playwright, an up-from-poverty New York Jew enjoying his first success on Broadway with Bare Ruined Choirs, a paean to the common man. As Fink, Turturro sports glasses and wiry hair that recall the socially conscious dramatist Clifford Odets (Golden Boy).
Hollywood calls on the boy wonder. Fink resists; he’s on a mission for the little guy. But his agent, Garland Stanford (an elegantly sleazy David Warrilow), persuades him that it’s time to make a buck, saying, “The common man will be here when you get back.”
Initially, Fink clings to his proletarian roots by staying at the run-down Hotel Earle. But Fink caves in almost immediately when studio chief Jack Lipnick – a vibrant monster in the expert hands of Michael Lerner – gives him a week to write a wrestling picture. Lipnick and his flunky Lou Breeze (the great Jon Polito) flatter him into agreeing. “We need that Barton Fink feeling,” says Lipnick, who knows as much about Fink as Fink knows about wrestling – namely, nothing.
Lipnick will literally kiss a writer’s feet to get what he craves: art that makes money. That’s why he has also hired the great Southern novelist W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), a character meant to recall William Faulkner, whose work for movies included The Big Sleep. On a drunken tear in a park, Mayhew lambastes the pretentious Fink, then sings “Old Black Joe,” pisses on a tree and smacks around his Southern lady friend, Audrey Taylor, beautifully acted by Judy Davis. Fink is appalled by his idol’s behavior but smitten with Audrey, who is rumored to have written the great man’s last two books. Fink wants to get closer to this mother-protector, but the studio’s production supervisor, Ben Geisler (an inspired turn by Tony Shalhoub), rides him to start writing.
All of Fink’s anxieties come into play at the Hotel Earle, shot by Roger Deakins (Sid and Nancy) with a poet’s eye for glory in decay. Thanks to Dennis Glassner’s evocative production design, you can almost smell the banana trees rotting in the empty hallways. Fink’s room, containing a bed, a dressing table and a typewriter, seems even more claustrophobic when Fink realizes after days of work that he can’t get any further into the script than setting the opening scene in a tenement on the Lower East Side. A picture of a bathing beauty, which Fink hangs above the typewriter, provides the only color.
That is, until Charlie Meadows makes his entrance. On his first night at the hotel, Fink complained to the desk about moans coming from next door. Now Meadows wants to see who did the complaining. Miffed at first, this good-time Charlie soon warms to his neighbor. Meadows helpfully demonstrates a few wrestling holds and offers to tell Fink about life on the road and “the misery of the planet.”
Meadows is the common man incarnate – he even resembles the burly actor Wallace Beery, for whom Fink is supposed to be tailoring his script. Fink is grateful for Meadows’s sympathetic ear but pays him little mind. Even when Fink becomes so desperate that he drops his standards and begs Audrey to finish his script, the writer fails to see the source of inspiration in front of his face. In trying to live a “life of the mind,” Fink has lost touch with reality. Turturro brings a startling originality to Fink, finding the humor and the terror in a man who learns the hard way that he’s a charlatan sliding by on borrowed ideas. Somehow Turturro makes the pompous, platitudinous, self-deluding, socially inept Fink both understandable and human. Goodman has perhaps an even trickier role as the salesman whose snappy patter can’t disguise his loneliness. His talents are well known from TV’s Roseanne and such films as True Stories, The Big Easy and the Coens’ Raising Arizona. But Goodman has never had a role like Charlie Meadows; he’s a flat-out marvel. Turturro and Goodman deliver spectacular performances, and the film needs all their power and finesse when the Coens switch moods dramatically at midpoint.
There’s a murder, bloody and cataclysmic. Fink is implicated by the police, and Meadows comes to his aid before heading back on the road and leaving his friend with the box for safekeeping. Fink doesn’t look inside. But he keeps the box near his typewriter, writing for the first time in a fever of conviction. Later, when Charlie returns, a fire breaks out in the hotel. Fink manages to save the box and the script, which the studio harshly rejects. “We don’t put Wallace Beery in a family movie about suffering,” says Lipnick in a rage.
The story ends with a surprising coda in which Fink walks on the beach carrying the box. Like the box, the film is an enigma that elicits strong feelings. Though the Coens have clearly shared with Fink the temptation to betray their ideals in order to get the next word on paper, they are still more interested in provoking audiences than pandering to them. Barton Fink is stimulating entertainment, as rigorously challenging and painfully funny as anything the Coens have done. But it’s necessary to meet the Coens halfway. If you don’t, Barton Fink is an empty exercise that will bore you breathless. If you do, it’s a comic nightmare that will stir your imagination like no film in years.