If the Coen Brothers cracked a joke in an empty forest, would anyone laugh? More to the point, would the Coen Brothers care?
More than any other filmmakers, co-writers Joel (who also directs) and Ethan (who also produces) Coen make movies to please themselves. Not me, not you, but each other. It’s not that they mind if other people get their jokes. Far from it; it’s simply beside the point as far as they’re concerned. The results of this curious methodology can be exhilarating, or frustrating, or, as in the current “Barton Fink” (at the Park Theatre), exhilarating and frustrating at the same time.
Both the exhilaration and frustration stem from the fact that the Coens, as their three previous films (“Blood Simple,” “Raising Arizona” and “Miller’s Crossing”) demonstrate, are filmmakers of considerable ability. Their scripts are invariably clever and bemused, with a wised-up quality all their own and, like the old Hallmark boast, they care enough to hire the very best to bring them to life.
In “Barton Fink,” that means not only gifted actors like John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis and Michael Lerner, but also exceptional below-the-line personnel like cinematographer Roger Deakins, who shot both “Stormy Monday” and “Mountains of the Moon,” and production designer Dennis Gassner, who masterminded the look of everything from “Field of Dreams” to “The Grifters.” And the Coens never fail to infuse the whole with a sheer tactile pleasure in the hands-on mechanics of filmmaking that gives their films the welcome sheen of superior craft.
But--and with the Coen brothers there is always a but--the fact remains that their world is the most hermetically sealed imaginable. Their films, and “Barton Fink” is no exception, are long, strange trips to places so indescribable you have no idea where you’re going even after you’ve been there. That experience is often invigorating, and the Coens’ skill is such that you’re not averse to following them anywhere, but every once in a while you can’t help wishing they weren’t so dead-set against throwing the rest of us at least a hint of what’s on their minds.
When “Barton Fink” begins, it does not seem like it’s going to be this perplexing. The year is 1941 and the Barton of the title is glimpsed backstage at the Broadway premiere of his new play, “Bare Ruined Choirs,” a stirring drama of the working class. It’s a huge success, and Barton’s agent tells him he has an offer of a fat contract from Capital Pictures. No, Mr. Serious replies, the model of injured dignity, he wants to stay in New York and “create a new theater for the common man.” But, after his agent soothingly assures him that “the common man will still be here when you get back,” Barton reluctantly goes West.
Well, we all know what happens to scribes in Hollywood, and though the Coens, in a predictable burst of disinformation, have insisted that making a picture about screenwriters could not have been further from their minds, on one level “Barton Fink” is an enormously amusing crackpot take on the underside of the Hollywood dream. If Jean-Paul Sartre and Billy Wilder collaborated on a script version of Scott Fitzgerald’s Pat Hobby stories and handed it to Luis Bunuel to direct, “Barton Fink” would be close to what they’d come up with.
Though Turturro is, as always, right on the money as the benighted Barton, his is a reactive role, and it falls to Michael Lerner to light up the Hollywood side of the picture. A fine actor who seems fated to be memorable in small roles (for instance, the lawyer in the Jessica Lange/Jack Nicholson “The Postman Always Rings Twice”), Lerner brings eye-popping gusto to the role of Jack Lipnick, mercurial head of Capital Pictures.
“Is that him? Is that Barton Fink? Let me hug the guy,” he all but screams, the mercurial tummler from Minsk, on first introduction to the timid visitor. He immediately puts “Bart” on a wrestling-themed B picture starring Wallace Beery, insisting as he ushers him out the door that it have “that Barton Fink feeling.” It is, in a film filled with eye-catching, eccentric acting, a comic performance to savor above all the others.
Lipnick is not Barton’s only Hollywood acquaintance. He meets the alcoholic Southern writer W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), who bears the same glancing resemblance to William Faulkner as Barton does to Clifford Odets, as well as Mayhew’s cool girlfriend Audrey (Davis). But only part of Barton’s life is spent in Hollywood. The rest is spent holed up in the Hotel Earle (“A Day or a Lifetime” is its unnerving motto), trying to write.
Not since Nicholson checked into that enormous mountain lodge in “The Shining” has there been a hotel that looked as unwelcoming as the faded Tropical Deco elegance of the Earle, a subtly sinister place where even peeling wallpaper seems to have its own agenda. If Barton has trouble writing there--and writer’s block has rarely if ever been as effectively portrayed--it is no wonder.
Adding to Barton’s concerns is his self-described “big clumsy lug” of a neighbor, Charlie (John Goodman), “not the best-read guy on the planet,” a working stiff who travels around selling life insurance when he’s not holed up drinking at the Earle. Though Charlie is precisely the kind of guy Barton claims to want to write about, Barton, with typical insufferability, never shuts up long enough for Charlie to get a word in. Still, they become friends of a sort, sharing both whiskey and ruminations on a regular basis.
As Barton Fink, man and film, wend on their moodily comic way, getting further from Hollywood and becoming increasingly peculiar, unnerving and in-your-face incomprehensible, the feeling is inescapable that the film is adding up to much less than the sum of its parts. But when the parts are so enticing, and presented with such brazen assurance, you find yourself wondering how much it really matters if they add up at all.
Is “Barton Fink” (rated R for language and some scenes of violence) admirable, or an evasion of responsibility? A landmark film (the folks at Cannes voted it best picture, best director and best actor) or an elaborate, nihilistic doodle? If you can’t decide, it’s probably safe to say that the Coen Brothers, at least, are getting a kick out of your ambivalence.
John Turturro: Barton Fink
John Goodman: Charlie
Judy Davis: Audrey
Michael Lerner: Jack Lipnick
John Mahoney: W.P. Mayhew
Tony Shalhoub: Ben Geisler
Jon Polito: Lou Breeze
A Circle Films presentation, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Joel Coen. Producer Ethan Coen. Executive producers Ben Barenholtz, Ted Pedas, Jim Pedas and Bill Durkin. Screenplay Joel and Ethan Coen. Cinematographer Roger Deakins. Editor Roderick Jaynes. Costumes Richard Hornung. Music Carter Burwell. Production design Dennis Gassner. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (language and some scenes of violence).