Set in 1941, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Barton Fink stars John Turturro as the title character, an earnest, high-minded New York playwright (based on Clifford Odets) whose play Bare Ruined Choirs â€“ a tribute to the “common man” â€“ makes him the toast of Broadway. It isn’t long before Hollywood drafts Fink for screenplay duty. He is put up in a hothouse of a hotel, where the wallpaper is literally peeling off the walls, and goes to work on a screenplay for “Capitol Pictures” whose Louis B. Mayer-like boss Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) gives Barton the assignment of a Wallace Beery wrestling opus. Barton soon befriends his next door neighbor at the hotel, a huge, good-natured insurance salesman named Charlie Meadows (John Goodman) who seems to fit Barton’s conception of the “common man” perfectly.
While Charlie seems happy having Barton draw inspiration from him, Barton finds himself in the midst of writer’s block. He turns to W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), a southern, a once-great novelist patterned after Faulkner who has hit the bottle (Mahoney even looks like Faulkner), and his sympathetic secretary Audrey (Judy Davis in the same year as Naked Lunch). Barton is shocked to find that Audrey is more than Mayhew’s secretary and lover â€“ she also has been ghost writing his work for years. She offers herself to Barton sexually in hopes it will clear his writer’s block, but the morning after…
At this point, the Coen brothers take the film in such an unexpected direction that what began as an eccentric comedy turns into the blackest of satires. Barton is dragged kicking and, literally screaming, into Hell, where he becomes involved in an almost Faustian exchange for his screenplay, which Barton thinks is his best work but is rejected by Lipnick as a “fruity story about suffering” (it is suggested that Barton has merely rewritten his play).
This is a vicious, brilliant film, though some viewers may find Barton Fink a tough character to anchor any sympathy on with his talk about the pain of the writer’s “life of the mind.” Perhaps the Coen brother’s vision may prove too cynical for some; indeed, it seems like no one in the film had ever read anything (“Ever read the Bible?” Fink asks the withered old hotel elevator operator. “The Holy Bible? I think so,” he replies. “Anyway, I heard of it.”). Nonetheless, this is black comedy at its vicious zenith, brilliantly written and directed, and pretty much essential if you’re a writer. Anyone who has been through writer’s block, has produced good work under pressure or has had a favorite work rejected will have much to relate to here. A memorable scene has Fink celebrating his finished screenplay at a U.S.O. dance where he tells a group of sailors who ask why he’s not in uniform, “This is my uniform you monsters! I create for a living” as he points to his head. Of course he is promptly knocked unconscious. So much for the life of the mind.