After seeing "Barton Fink," I think I finally understand why the brothers Coen spell their name without an H: These boys have pretensions.
The latest film by Ethan (he co-writes and produces) and Joel (he co-writes and directs) is so packed with allusions (to the Bible, to other movies and to literature) and is so artfully shot (walls that threaten to come to life, a down-the-drain shot that becomes a vortex into a skewed universe and a framed photograph into which the movie itself finally disappears) that "Barton Fink" is finally about nothing less than how clever the Coens are.
But guess what? They are clever. This dark comedy about Hollywood at the end of the Depression will make you laugh, keep you thinking about it for days and leave you wanting to see it again.
Barton is a New York playwright who's an amalgam of Clifford Odets (in his solidarity-with-the-working-class ideology) and George S. Kauffman (with his electrified Brillo hair). Brought brilliantly to life by John Turturro, he's an insufferably self-important jerk who refuses to listen to a friendly insurance salesman (played by John Goodman), but tells him, "I write about people like you -- the average working stiff."
Barton's imperviousness to any words but his own collapses when he goes to Hollywood as a screenwriter. In this bizarre workshop that actually produces fantasies for common people, Barton comes to feel that he is even smaller than the mosquitoes that buzz-bomb him in his room at the Hotel Earle.
That hotel is itself one of the great creations of the movie. It's like a Roach Motel -- you can check in but you can't check out.
It's also like Hell -- it's impossibly hot, the bellman enters through a trapdoor, the elevator man is a Charon-like figure and the hotel itself finally blazes in an inferno that mortifies the flesh and spirit without actually burning them. Hundreds of pairs of shoes are inexplicably collected and deposited outside the doors of its vertiginous corridors every night and morning, yet Barton and Charlie Meadows (the salesman played by Goodman) are the only inhabitants.
The film is populated by unforgettable characters like Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner in three scenes that almost steal the show). He's the Hollywood mogul who tells Barton, "I'm bigger and meaner and louder than any other kike in this town," and who wants him to write a movie about wrestling with "that Barton Fink feeling."
But Barton has writer's block and no one seems able to help him -- not the alcoholic W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney in a send-up of William Faulkner) or Audrey (Judy Davis), his beautiful personal secretary whose relationship to the great man is even more complicated than one might suspect.
But Charlie -- in Goodman's best performance so far in films -- is, as it turns out, the strangest piece of work in a very strange town, and the revelation of what he is brings about the end of Barton's writer's block and the surrealistic denouement of the film.
"Barton Fink" leaves its hero sitting on a beach with a box that may or may not contain a severed human head. It is a movie that leaves us wondering not only about the contents of that box but also about the relationship between the desire to produce popular art and popular art itself, filled as it is with the spectacular fires and violence that "Barton Fink" parodies and celebrates.
What kind of feeling is that "Barton Fink" feeling? It's a feeling that so teases you into thought that it makes a fairly intelligent person feel brighter than he is. That's a wonderful feeling to have; I liked "Barton Fink" very much.
Starring John Turturro, John Goodman and Michael Lerner.
Directed by Joel Coen.
Released by Circle Films.