Credit: Courtesy of Everett Collection

Barton (John Turturro), the blocked writer at the center of the Coen brothers’ teasingly enigmatic satirical fable, Barton Fink, stares out at the world with gawky, hangdog earnestness. Beneath his circular specs, his eyes are sad and pleading; the wedge of frizzy black hair that shoots up three inches above his crown — he looks like Eraserhead with a trim — might almost be an explosion of brain cells. Barton is a prime specimen of nerdus intellectualus, early-1940s division. During the opening-night performance of his new Broadway play, he stands in the wings, reverently murmuring his poetry-of-the-Common-Man dialogue along with the actors. Barton, you see, writes for one reason: to make the world a better place. To him, success is a mere tool, a vehicle for bringing his message to all the little people out there. Then the devil — that is, Hollywood — pays a call.

Barton is offered the chance to become a contract screenwriter for Capitol Pictures. With a little arm-twisting from his agent, he takes the job-but only because the money ($1,000 a week) will give him the freedom he needs to write his plays. The movie, which is about how Barton’s movieland odyssey turns into a slowly discombobulating nightmare, is a kind of highfalutin Twilight Zone episode, with mock-thriller motifs ranging from the pesky mosquito in Barton’s hotel apartment to a package that may or may not contain a severed head.

With his enraptured rhetoric about the noble masses, Barton is clearly meant to be a takeoff on the rhapsodically high-minded playwright Clifford Odets. And since Odets went to Hollywood and had his share of hedonistic adventures, we assume that Barton Fink is going to be about how the prim, socially conscious Barton — a man so moralistic he’s practically a monk — succumbs to the tantalizing corruption of Tinseltown, a place where even the sin is bathed in sunshine.

Well, that’s not what happens. Barton moves into a fleabag hotel, where the halls, with their rotting, green-and-yellow flowered wallpaper — the color scheme of an upset stomach — are like spectral passageways to another world. (Barton has kept his integrity, all right: He’s blocked out the sunshine.) Then he gets his first screenwriting assignment, a Wallace Beery wrestling picture. ”We’re expecting great things!” beams the mogul (Michael Lerner) of Capitol Pictures.

And then? Then Barton can’t write a word. Maybe he’s choking under pressure, or maybe his fingers just won’t bring themselves to type out a piece of hackwork. Or maybe it’s the slowly escalating weirdness of his environment. Everywhere he goes, things seem just a little bit…off. In the hotel, he hears an eerie sound coming through the wall (is it whimpering? crazed laughter?) and then meets the fellow next door — a perfectly cheerful, roly-poly insurance salesman (John Goodman). Soon, huge strips of wallpaper begin to peel in the heat. Since the dank, tiny room is already a glorified prison cell, the wilting decor has an element of derangement, as if Barton were slowly being stripped of everything but his own whiny conscience. In the rest room of a Hollywood bistro, he hears horrible sounds — someone is vomiting his guts out — and then, emerging from the stall, there’s a dapper, middle-aged gentleman in a bow tie. It’s none other than W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), the celebrated novelist-turned-screenwriter, a kind of Faulkner-Fitzgerald character who turns out to be a round-the-clock lush.

The fourth film by the Coen brothers (Joel directs, Ethan produces, and they both write the scripts), Barton Fink has an atmosphere of languid comic anxiety. The central idea is that Barton, with his artistic ”purity,” his reverse-snob naivete about the Common Man, is a fool who’s getting his cosmic comeuppance. I’m not going to give away any more of the plot (the movie depends on surprise), but suffice to say that Barton Fink turns into the Coens’ jokey, formalist version of Angel Heart, a metaphysical tale about a man trapped in his own private purgatorial maze. In its dour, detached way, the movie is fun to watch — you have no idea what’s coming next — but, even more than such previous Coen pictures as Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing, it’s finally not about anything but itself.

Turturro, giving his raspy voice an idealistic, up-from-the-streets-of-New-York lilt, makes Barton pathetic, but with glints of soul — a schlemiel so innocent he’s guilty of innocence. As the mysterious Charlie Meadows, John Goodman shows a new and dazzling dark side, and Michael Lerner does a hilarious turn as the spasmodic studio mogul Jack Lipnick, who’s like a Jewish godfather reborn in a slapstick Warner Bros. cartoon. The central limitation of the film is that the Coens aren’t really interested in Barton as a character. (They aren’t interested in anyone as a character.) He’s drawn in two dimensions, and so, despite Turturro’s comically inspired underplaying, it’s difficult to work up much empathy for what he’s going through. Had Barton been a richer presence, we’d feel more involved in the (intentionally) murky plotting and also in the surreal climactic twist, which, thematically speaking, is of a piece with the rest of the film but still seems to come out of nowhere.

The Coens’ deadpan contempt, which they’re only too happy to shine on their hero, can be very funny. But it’s also a dramatic neutralizer. Their first (and still best) film, Blood Simple (1985), was essentially a contraption, a game: the murder thriller as Rubik’s Cube. Barton Fink has a similar horrific logic-it, too, offers the audience a fixed-point vision of a warped universe-only this time the Coens leave out the resolutions, the sharp dramatic corners, that give a pop-culture morality play its gimmicky edge. Barton Fink has a lulling fascination, but the Coens, more than ever, keep you conscious of their prickly, synthetic artistry. If they get any more rarefied, their games may no longer be worth the trouble to play. B

Barton Fink
  • Movie
  • 116 minutes