Barton Fink, the nightmarish, grisly, and very funny black comedy from Joel and Ethan Coen, defies description. It’s beyond description. What is it about? Well, it’s about writer’s block. It’s about pus. It’s about mosquitoes and desolation, and mosquitoes as symbols of desolation. It’s about a sealed cardboard box just big enough to hold … a severed head. Mostly, it’s about Barton Fink (John Turturro), a New York playwright. It’s 1941, and Barton’s first play — Bare Ruined Choirs — is a hit. Hollywood takes notice: there’s a fresh new voice out there, the voice of the common man. Capitol Pictures, headed by the boisterous exec Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner in a juicy caricature performance), hires Barton to write a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery; they put him up at the dingy Hotel Earle in Los Angeles.
Of course, when Barton sits in front of his immense black Underwood, the words won’t come. He tries to find his way into the script the same way he began the Odetsian, nobility-of-the-common-man play that got him this job, but he can’t shift into Hollywood-hack mode. It just isn’t in him. He’s the only one who knows how wrong he is for the assignment, yet he plugs away at it, because the money is good — $1,000 a week. So he tries to prostitute his talent, and he can’t even do it, and the world is slowly pressing down on him.
In the early scenes, the Coens — Joel as director, Ethan as producer, and both of them as cowriters — capture the dead-end squalor of Barton’s surroundings, which mirror his inner decay. His hotel room, with its gangrenous peeling wallpaper (oozing with a gluey substance that strongly suggests semen) and its mosquitoes giving off a maddening buzz at all hours, is lighted (by ace cinematographer Roger Deakins) to look like a Florida swamp. You get itchy just looking at it. Lipnick offers to put Barton up at a nicer place, but Barton declines: The dismal room is his last contact with grubby, inner-city realism. He’s the artist as masochist — to Create, he must Suffer.
And suffer he does. One night, Barton’s fitful work is interrupted by noises from the room next door: a man crying, laughing, muttering to himself. Concerned and a bit annoyed, Barton calls the hotel bellboy and complains. Within minutes, the man from next door looms in Barton’s doorway, his face pink with fury. He’s big, beefy Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), a lonely insurance salesman who at first nails Barton with a hot, accusatory stare: You got a problem with me, pal? In time, though, Charlie turns apologetic and friendly, offering Barton a swig from his flask. They become buddies, though Barton soon wishes they hadn’t. Charlie is amiable enough, but he seems to be rotting. The pus that trickles from his infected left ear is like the slime that oozes from the wallpaper. Something’s not quite right about Charlie.
Barton Fink also considers the real Barton Finks of old Tinseltown — the serious novelists and playwrights who tried to play the Hollywood game and were broken in half. A subplot introduces a figure Barton is in danger of becoming: W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), a Faulkneresque rummy who cranks out bum screenplays, drowns in booze when the “lit’ry” muse won’t come, and leaves most of the writing to his secretary and lover Audrey (Judy Davis). The fates of Mayhew and Audrey are the film’s turning point, after which Barton Fink becomes a chilly, surreal horror movie.
Barton Fink is fascinating in a creepy way, and so are the performances. John Turturro, who’s made a career of being disagreeable (Five Corners, Do the Right Thing, the Coens’ Miller’s Crossing), isn’t likable here, either; he speaks in strangled tones and lets his sunken eyes bulge behind his nerd glasses. (He also sports an Eraserhead ‘do that makes him look a bit like Ethan Coen.) His Barton Fink is a stubbly rat in a maze: tormented, furtive, miserable. Yet Turturro finds the manic-depressive comedy in Barton; you don’t resent his passivity or his slouching around as if chained to the floor by his neck. Barton, potentially a drag, is a painfully funny character thanks to Turturro.
John Goodman has the zestier role. Like Turturro, he’s worked with the Coens before (Raising Arizona), and their camera worships him. Most of his line readings are a bit stiff, and after a while I realized it was by design: Charlie the salesman talks without believing what he’s saying — they’re just words. Goodman brings weight to the movie, and not just physical. He shows you the terrified emptiness behind Charlie’s joviality. And in the end, when he cuts loose, he’s as touching as he is frightening; I can’t think of another actor who could have brought off the apocalyptic finale without looking ridiculous. Working with the Coens must unleash something primeval in this teddy-bear comedian. He puts on a ferocious show.
And so, once again, do the Coen brothers — two highly original filmmakers working at their peak. Barton Fink won’t be to every taste: It’s austere and airless, and sometimes a little too gleeful about putting the nails to its protagonist. But there’s no film like it, there never will be another film like it, and it’s everything the Coens’ detractors hate and everything their fans love. Frame for frame, this is a paranoid masterpiece.