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Barton Fink ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Barton Fink ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Things are all balled up at the head office. Can it really be twenty-six years since the Coen brothers’ brilliant dark comedy Barton Fink first came out? I watched it again this week and liked it just as much as the first time I saw it on the movie screen.

Barton Fink (played by John Turturro) is a fuzzy-haired, bespectacled, New York, Jewish writer. He is a serious playwright who wants to create a “new, living theatre” extolling the common man. He has a hit play on Broadway. With his success comes new opportunities; his agent persuades him to go to Hollywood to write for the movies where he can make the big money he needs to continue writing his plays.

Hollywood for Barton is a vision of hell. He is installed in a seedy, seemingly empty hotel where everything is a little “off.” The fawning desk clerk named Chet appears to be the only employee at the hotel, except for the comatose elevator operator named Pete. “Have you read the Bible?” Barton asks Pete at one point in the story. “The Holy Bible?” Pete asks. “Yeah, I’ve read it. I’ve heard about it anyway.”

The wallpaper in Barton’s room on the sixth floor is peeling off from the Los Angeles heat. There’s a mosquito that buzzes around Barton’s head while he’s sleeping and it bites him on the face. (“We don’t have mosquitoes here,” someone tells him. “This is the desert. Mosquitoes live in swamps.”) The room is so quiet that he hears sounds coming from the room next door. It sounds like a man alternately laughing and crying in a distressed way. Barton calls down to Chet and politely complains. When the man next door finds out that Barton has complained about his noise, he confronts Barton. This is where Barton meets “Charlie Meadows” (John Goodman), the folksy and friendly insurance salesman (he says) who, we learn, is not really who or what he appears to be.

Barton’s problems with his hotel accommodations are nothing compared to the problems he has with the studio, Capitol Pictures, that employs him as a writer. His first assignment is to write a “wrestling picture for Wallace Beery.” He is completely out of his element here. He doesn’t go the movies, he says, and knows nothing about wrestling pictures. He doesn’t even know how to begin.

When Barton is visiting the studio one day, he runs into a writer named Bill Mayhew, vomiting his guts out in the men’s room. Barton discovers right away that this man is none other than the great writer W. P. Mayhew. “You are the greatest novelist of our time,” Barton gushes. “Why, thank you, son!” Mayhew drawls. He’s from Mississippi, don’t you know, and his character is obviously a take-off on the great American writer William Faulkner, who did, for a time, bastardize his great gift to write for the movies. Bill Mayhew is a terrible lush, but charming, and invites Barton to drop by his bungalow at the studio later in the day, where he will give Barton some pointers about writing a wrestling picture. When Barton arrives to meet with Mayhew, he (Mayhew) is in a drunken rage and can’t come to the door. Barton speaks instead to Audrey, Mayhew’s secretary. She is a Blanche Dubois-type character with a Southern accent. When Barton, who is lonely and knows nobody in Hollywood, asks Audrey to go out with him, she confides that she and W. P. Mayhew are “in love.”

Barton remains stymied with his script. He is “blocked,” he says. He must present an outline to the studio head. He doesn’t know what to do because he has written nothing. On the night before his meeting to present his outline, he is frantic and has no one to turn to, so he calls Bill Mayhew for some emergency advice. Mayhew is indisposed, Audrey says, and cannot come to the phone. When Barton tells her the predicament he is in, she agrees to come to his hotel room and try to help him with his script. “There’s nothing to writing a wrestling picture,” she says. Barton is appalled to learn that Audrey has done most of Mayhew’s writing in recent years, including his novels, because Mayhew has been too out of it with drink to do productive work. Audrey gives Barton a few suggestions for his script and then they kiss and end up together in bed. Fade out.

When Barton wakes up in the morning, Audrey is dead in the bed beside him, apparently stabbed many times in the chest. Barton is terrified. He knows he didn’t kill her, but he doesn’t know who did. Not knowing who else to turn to, he goes to the room next door and enlists the aid of Charlie Meadows. Charlie is sympathetic and, after helping to calm Barton down, disposes of Audrey’s body. All right, the body is gone, but the mattress is soaked with blood. What will Barton do about that?

Charlie has to leave town for a few days but will be back. He tells Barton to stay in his room and not talk to anybody. He asks Barton to take care of a box for him until he comes back. We don’t know what’s in the box—we never know—but Barton agrees to grant this little favor. The box is just about big enough to hold a human head.

When two police officers show up at Barton’s hotel, they are looking for Charlie Meadows. In a rapid-fire exchange of dialogue, they tell Barton that Charlie Meadows’ real name is Karl “Madman” Mundt. He’s a serial killer with a whole string of killings in his wake. Barton knows then who really killed Audrey.

In the last scene, Barton is seen sitting on a California beach, having escaped an inferno (part of the hell that he’s been in since he came to Hollywood?) at his hotel that Charlie Meadows/Karl Mundt set. He is carrying the box that Mundt asked him to safeguard. A girl comes along wearing a modest bathing suit. He tells her she is very beautiful and she blushes. He asks her if she is in pictures and she says, “Don’t be silly!” She sits down several feet away from Barton, facing the ocean, and raises her right hand to shade her eyes as she looks out to sea. The image that Barton sees of the girl is the picture he has been looking at the whole time on the wall above his writing desk in his hotel room. We know then how unhinged Barton has become. Does the girl really exist, except in his mind?

Few movies come along that are as memorable, inventive, and as much fun to watch as Barton Fink. The dialogue is a pleasure to hear (especially the exchange that Barton has in the lobby of his hotel with two hardboiled L.A. police officers), the photography and period sets are perfect, and the music score by Carter Burwell is beautiful and mysterious. One of my all-time favorite movies.

Everything is all balled up at the head office. By the end of the movie, we understand the significance of this statement.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

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