'Barton Fink' a troubling mix of humor, horror LTC

On movies

September 20, 1991|By Lou Cedrone

''Barton Fink'' is a mixture of the comic, bizarre and the sick, a melange that doesn't really work.

The film, done by the Coen Brothers (it was directed by Joel Coen and written by Joel and his brother Ethan), begins as a slow but subtly comic tale about a playwright who is summoned to Hollywood in 1941.

When he gets there, he takes a room in a shabby hotel where his neighbor is a burly individual who takes to the newcomer.

Something, however, is not right. We can feel it. The sounds coming from the other rooms, the peeling wallpaper and the hall that looks as though it was designed by Salvador Dali, combine to let us know that all is not well in this hotel.

However, none of this enough to prepare us for what is coming, a murder that arrives as a complete surprise. Thereafter, the film moves to the left, down dark and dank avenues, until it comes to rest on a beach that looks as though it belongs in a film by Antonioni (''Blow-Up'').

In short, ''Barton Fink'' is part comedy, part mystery, part horror and part supernatural, though none of this should come as a surprise, because the Coen boys' other films include ''Blood Simple,'' ''Raising Arizona'' and ''Miller's Crossing.''

You'll find elements of all these films in the new one, and one wishes we did not. ''Barton Fink'' might have been a rather bright joke on Hollywood and the people who make films, but instead, it journeys into the sick and obscure.

You'll also find elements of ''Night Must Fall,'' the melodrama Emlyn Williams wrote back in the '30s. In ''Night Must Fall,'' it was Robert Montgomery who carried something around in a hatbox. In ''Barton Fink,'' Fink carries a package around.

''Barton Fink'' also dips into race when it hardly seems necessary. In their own way, the Coens are telling us what they thought of Hitler and the German people, but they choose a very curious way to to it.

John Turturro, of the Spike Lee movies, is the title character. His hair brings David Lynch's ''Eraserhead'' to mind, but then there is a lot in this movie that goes back to other movies. The Coens have done their homework.

Turturro, an unlikely leading man, does well. John Goodman is the man in the room next door, John Mahoney is an F. Scott Fitzgerald type -- a writer who lives on booze -- Judy Davis is his girlfriend, Michael Lerner is the owner of the studio for which Fink is working and Tony Shalhoub is the producer with whom Fink is supposed to work.

Davis, who was in ''Passage to India,'' gives the film a few genuine laughs in that first hour or so. It could use more of this in the footage that follows.

''Barton Fink,'' which begins to bore just before it turns sick, will also remind you of recent headlines. There are similarities between one of the characters and Jeffrey Dahmer, the mass murderer.

''Barton Fink'' opens today at the Rotunda. It's a special film, one the younger generation -- those raised on ''Friday the 13th'' and the ''Elm Street'' movies -- may appreciate. Those who managed to mature before those films came along will find the new movie disquieting, at best.

''Barton Fink' * A playwright moves to Hollywood where he becomes involved in a bizarre chain of events.

CAST: John Turturro, John Goodman, John Mahoney, Judy Davis, Jon Polito, Michael Lerner, Tony Shalhoub

DIRECTOR: Joel Coen

RATING: R (language, violence)

RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes

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