Barton Fink (1991) – Movie Review

Director: Joel Coen
Writer: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis
Runtime: 116 min
Rating: 14A

This surreal adventure written by the Coen brothers has been vigorously celebrated and acclaimed. The feature won three awards at the Cannes Film Festival, including the Palm d’Or, Best Director, and Best Actor, as well as having been nominated for three Oscars. Admiration for the film comes as no surprise, seeing as, much like the Coens’ talent, there is nothing quite like Barton Fink.

After achieving success on Broadway and being praised by a number of critics, up-and-coming writer Barton Fink (John Tarturro) gets a deal with Capitol Pictures to become a writer under contract for the studio. Hesitantly, he packs his bags and heads to Los Angeles, where he is to stay in a crummy hotel filled with dust and falling wallpaper. After receiving orders to write the script of a wrestling movie, Barton soon finds himself in a terrible writer’s block, and he seeks help from famous writer W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney). Trouble soon begins when he finds himself drawn to Mayhew’s secretary and lover, Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis), but their love will face severe complications. Nothing seems to be right in Hollywood, and Barton finds solace in his only friend and next door neighbour, Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), a travelling insurance vendor who might not be who he claims to be.

Barton Fink

A film like Barton Fink would not provide a successful end product without the mastery of script like the one Joel and Ethan Coen show. They are as skilled at creating generic characters, such as the Hollywood producers, as they are at creating unique characters like the jolly Charlie Meadows. Full of wit and ingenious scenarios, this feature is the perfect gateway into the Coens’ more whimsical side, which is so impregnated in many of their works.  Not only that, but it shows their ability to dominate various fields, including directing. Once more, a story like this one could turn very messy in little time without good guidance and control, and the direction provides ideal balance between the serious and the absurd. The film doesn’t take itself seriously, but it is not merely a nefarious comedic and creative experiment.

Barton Fink

Barton Fink brings with its whimsical story a group of powerhouse actors. Now a recurrent actor in the Coens’ films, this is their first collaboration with John Turturro. Not only does Turturro’s acting suit Barton, but his looks also create the character and make him an icon.  Michael Lerner is fantastic as the verbally abusive kingpin of Capitol Pictures. He is the perfect embodiment of a busy Hollywood magnate, and his interactions with Barton are one of the film’s comedic heights. Needles to say, it is John Goodman who creates the most beloved character. While Barton’s quirks are entertaining and they drive the story, Goodman as Charlie Meadows is a perfect combination of fantastic lines and the right actor to carry them. Goodman is a regular in Coen films, and with reason; his timing and impersonation are impeccable, and he always has something unique to deliver.  Steve Buscemi’s charming portrayal of the efficient hotel employee Chet is also worth note, and although it’s brief, it adds to the hotel’s strange atmosphere and is a special treat for those who may only have begun to delve into Buscemi’s career.

Fans and not-yet fans of the Coen brothers alike will find a jewel in Barton Fink. It is a film that cannot be ignored or passed by; its uniqueness and value make it noteworthy, even if it is for criticism. This film is one of the Coens’ finest works, not because of the critical praise it has received, but because it is undeniably good and enjoyable. More than an artistic jewel, it is pure and simple entertainment, with the Coens showing that an enjoyable movie can be intelligent as well.

The Breakdown
  • 9/10
    Direction - 9/10
  • 9/10
    Performances - 9/10
  • 9/10
    Screenplay - 9/10
  • 9/10
    Cinematography - 9/10
  • 8/10
    Music/Sound - 8/10