Sunday 2 October 2016

Movie Review: Barton Fink (1991)

A dramatic comedy about writer's block, Barton Fink successfully gets into the head of a fledgling writer but stretches the concept to incredulous extremes.

In New York City of 1941, writer Barton Fink (John Turturro) achieves success with a new Broadway play and is celebrated as a rising star of the literary world. Despite espousing idealistic views of writing for the masses, Fink accepts a high-paying assignment to write screenplays in Hollywood and relocates to Los Angeles. His new employer is Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), boss of Capitol Pictures, who pretends to adore writers before assigning Fink to write a script for a lowbrow wrestling drama starring Wallace Beery.

Fink takes up residence in a derelict room at the cavernous but sparsely populated Hotel Earle, and struggles mightily with writer's block. The distractions include noise from adjoining rooms, peeling wallpaper, a singular picture of a girl on the beach, and talkative insurance salesman Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), who occupies the room next door. Extremely lonely and desperate to converse with another writer, Fink connects with W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), a legendary author now reduced to a state of perpetual drunkenness. Mayhew's secretary Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis) proves to be a better companion. With a deadline for delivering the script looming, there is a new major shock ahead for the hopelessly blocked Fink.

Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, Barton Fink is an odd exercise, apparently a diversionary exercise the Coens used as break from the intensity of Miller's Crossing. Filled with salutes to written and cinematic landmarks, the film contains plenty to admire both aesthetically and intellectually, and hits at dead centre the intended target topic of writer's block. But only so much can be built around a white empty page that stares back. Desperate for variety the film veers towards a madcap tone, and a final third that is more amusing than effective.

The best moments are by far set at the Hotel Earle, an eerily empty place forgotten by time and carrying echoes of that most famous writer's block hangout, The Overlook Hotel from The Shining. But Barton's journey is not one of madness, rather just a banana skin where his idealistic spoutings slip on an inability to listen to the common man and a quick soul sell. The peeling wall paper, the pesky mosquito, the noisy neighbours, the incessant heat, and that darned too perfect picture on the wall do nothing except conspire to prevent Barton from writing.

John Turturro does what is necessary in the grey title role, the screen portrayal of an introverted writer struggling to find words by definition a rather thankless task.

Less interesting are the surrounding characters. W.P. Mayhew is not so much the inspiration Barton hoped to find but rather the ultimate victim of writer's block, a man with a destiny to meet his fate at the bottom of the bottle every single day. John Goodman is excellent as Charlie Meadows, a salesman who starts out as an irritant, evolves into a friend and companion, and then transforms into something else entirely as the script slips out of control.

Judy Davis as Audrey Taylor does not get a chance to register as much of anything, her obvious role as writer's muse truncated to serve a needless detour towards mystical mystery territory. Steve Buscemi as the hotel clerk and Tony Shalhoub as a movie producer get small supporting roles.

Undoubtedly thought provoking, Barton Fink offers plenty of talking points but is an ultimately less than cohesive experience.

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