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Barton Fink Reviews

The grand-prize winner at the 1991 Cannes festival, BARTON FINK is the fourth installment in the Coen Brothers' series of highly stylized homages to classical Hollywood. But like their earlier films, BARTON FINK is a tour de force of cinematic technique that encases a quirky narrative of little depth. Barton Fink (John Turturro) is an earnest young New York playwright who hits it big with a Depression-era proletarian drama before being reluctantly seduced by a lucrative offer to go to Hollywood and write for the movies. Despite assurances that he will be given free reign by studio boss Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), Barton is asked to write a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery. Pent up in a surreal hotel room, Barton suffers acute and hallucinatory writer's block. Unlike the Coen's previous works (the film noir BLOOD SIMPLE, the screwball comedy RAISING ARIZONA and the gangster film MILLER'S CROSSING), BARTON FINK is not a revisionist take on a classical genre but a bizarre, comic portrayal of the Hollywood studio system of the 1930s and 40s. The principal characters are clearly drawn from actual people in that system: Fink is a thinly veiled version of Clifford Odets, the leftist playwright who departed the socially committed Group Theatre in New York to write screenplays in Hollywood during WWII. And the dipsomaniac writer W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney) is, of course, William Faulkner. But the scene-stealer is Jack Lipnick, the larger-than-life movie mogul who is a composite of MGM's Louis B. Mayer and other studio heads. Michael Lerner's portrayal of Lipnick overwhelms even the fine acting of the leading players, not the least of which is Goodman's transformation from a lonely salesman into a psychotic killer. As Barton, John Turturro (DO THE RIGHT THING, MILLER'S CROSSING) can only deadpan his way amid these caricatures while careening from one baffling encounter to the next. The film's period decor, mood lighting and artful camerawork are beautiful, at times thrilling, to look at. The surrealistic writer's block scenes, in which Barton silently watches wallpaper peel and its paste ooze, are particularly memorable--imagine ERASERHEAD in color. Ultimately, however, the look, sound and feel of this macabre comedy fail to support any coherent theme. The bombastic Philistines of Hollywood, the idealistic artists of the theater and the "common man" are all rather cruelly skewered in the film's finely polished characterizations. Much is denigrated, but little affirmed.