(director/writer: Joel & Ethan Coen; cinematographer: Roger Deakins; editors: Joel & Ethan Coen; music: Carter Burwell; cast: John Turturro (Barton Fink), John Goodman (Charlie Meadows), Judy Davis (Audrey Taylor), Michael Lerner (Jack Lipnick), John Mahoney (W.P. Mayhew), Tony Shalhoub (Ben Geisler), Jon Polito (Lou Breeze), Steve Buscemi (Chet), Christopher Murney (Detective Deutsch), Richard Portnow (Detective Mastrionotti); Runtime: 116; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Joel & Ethan Coen; Netflix/Circle Films/Kino-Lorber; 1991)

“Goes off the deep end.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Barton Fink is a unique deco-period film, whose hero is modeled after the earnest leftist playwright Clifford Odets, of NYC’s Group Theater, who scored it big with his Depression-era plays in the 1930s.

The siblings, Joel and Ethan Coen (“Blood Simple”/”Miller’s Crossing”), have co-directed and written a chilling comedy about the Hollywood scene (featuring its Philistine virtues compared to the more serious stage virtues of Broadway). It won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and also awards for Best Actor (John Turturro) and for Best Director (Coen brothers).

After his hit play “Bare Ruined Choirs” on Broadway, Barton Fink (John Turturro) is invited by the eccentric Capitol Pictures studio mogul Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), who is a composite of MGM’s Louis B. Mayer and other studio heads, to write a Hollywood film (a wrestling film to star Wallace Beery) and is put up in a dumpy Los Angeles hotel in 1942, just before World War II. The humorless intellectual writer is befriended by the good natured but slobbish travelling insurance salesman Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), an ‘everyman’ figure, who has a room next to his in the hotel and is only too glad to tell the writer stories about his common man experiences, stories that can cure his writer’s block, but the snobbish writer won’t listen.

Unable to write and obsessed with writing about the ‘common man,’ the self-pitying writer, who hardly leaves his dinghy room, suffers from insecurity. Hoping to get some help from W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), who is supposed to be the dipsomaniac William Faulkner, a novelist-turned-screenwriter, but is disappointed to get no help because the writer is a lush who checked-out on reality and is held together only by his lovely assistant and mistress (Judy Davis).

What starts out as a clever satire on Hollywood, a Faustian story of a writer willing to sell his soul for fame and money,  in the second half goes off the deep end and turns much darker–into a murder story, and a story of a world filled with hypocrisy angst.

The honored film marks the brothers arriving as a true force in Hollywood.

REVIEWED ON 5/23/2021  GRADE: A-