MOVIES | “Barton Fink,” the Coen Brothers’ wrestling match with the Muse

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The filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen are fond of genre exercises, and at first I thought Barton Fink (1991) was an exception. In fact, it did turn out to be a genre exercise—a Felliniesque allegory about the creative process—but it’s one that fits the Coen Brothers’ airtight eccentricity like a glove. Part of the Walker Art Center’s Regis Film Retrospective on the Coens, the movie is screening on September 30 and October 9.

The title character is played by John Turturro, apparently after a visit to Kid ‘n’ Play’s hairstylist. Barton Fink is a WWII-era playwright lauded for his sympathetic treatment of the Common Man, lured to Hollywood by the promise of a payoff that will fund decades of artistic indulgence. He checks into a hotel he deliberately selects for its ordinariness, where he sits waiting for inspiration to arrive. It does, after a while, but it is preceded by insurance salesman Charlie Meadows (John Goodman)—the Common Man incarnate, though Fink is more interested in pontificating about Meadows’s proletariat valor than in actually listening to anything he has to say. When a strange turn of circumstances seems to implicate Fink in a murder he didn’t commit, Meadows springs to the rescue and Fink finds the inspiration he was looking for.

At its core Barton Fink is a fairly sterile statement about the artist’s role in society, but on the surface it’s great fun. Turturro and Goodman are completely in their glory, and true Coen fans must feel about the actors’ scenes together in Barton Fink the way crime thriller fans feel about Robert De Niro and Al Pacino’s scenes together in Michael Mann’s Heat. If the Coens’ calculation makes the film merely odd rather than supremely weird, Turturro is not to blame: after Fink completes his screenplay, Turturro uncorks a viciously kinetic celebratory dance in a scene that’s completely gratuitous—and all the better for being so.

Barton Fink is a bonbon for the hardcore film buffs at the heart of the Coens’ audience, but its eerie setup—with the invaluable Steve Buscemi as Chet, the hotel’s enthusiastically businesslike clerk—seems to promise something darker. The Coens keep letting Fink out of the hotel room to have picnics with the literati and chat poolside with his employer, but I would like to see what a filmmaker like Roman Polanski or Stanley Kubrick would have done with Fink. I’m betting they would have kept him cooped up tight, slowly unpeeling along with his wallpaper.

Jay Gabler (jay@tcdailyplanet.net) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.

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