The Movies-to-Watch List: Barton Fink (1991)

I like a lot of Coen Brothers movies, and I try to take notice of when there’s a new one, but I don’t know that I’d call myself a huge fan. There are ones I like a bunch (Fargo, Raising Arizona, O Brother Where Art Thou?), ones I’ve seen and don’t really think much about (The Man Who Wasn’t There, Blood Simple, Burn After Reading), and ones I’m just not interested in seeing (Inside Llewyn Davis, Inside Llewyn Davis, Inside Llewyn Davis). Last year I finally saw The Big Lebowski, which I enjoyed, and now I’ve finally seen the one I hadn’t yet watched and was most interested in trying out.

Barton Fink gets a lot of play from Coen fans and not much of anyone else. It seems to be an oddball even among a collection of oddballs, but it sounded like it might be something I’d really like. In the end, though, it was kind of just…there…for me.

It’s the story of a leftist intellectual writer going to Hollywood to write movies, in defiance of his “art for the common man” stance. The joke is that Fink has no interest in actual common men, but like a lot of the notes in this movie, it’s obvious from the get-go and nothing much is ever done with it. Hollywood also receives some venom but again, it’s the same old Hollywood “Hollywood” we’ve seen a dozen times. A stand-in for William Faulkner slumming it at the studios goes just about as expected from such a thing. The Coens are usually tricky and subversive but everything here is pretty much by the numbers.

When things take an expected unexpected turn, it gets a little more interesting, but even that plays out without too many surprises and little point. The revelation about John Goodman’s character, while well-played by Goodman, doesn’t really do much of anything other than clumsily drive home the “Barton doesn’t care about common men” joke that’s already been going on for over an hour.

There’s some really great stuff in here. The character of the hotel where Fink is staying is fantastic, and one can see the Earle and the Overlook hanging out together. There’s a great apocalyptic feel to the place, especially at the end, but in service to what? We already get that this is Hell for Fink, so why make it literal? And then why give us the two codas of the predictable rejection of his script and seeing the real-life beach girl, while still toting the “mysterious” box.

Maybe I was expecting too much, but Barton Fink didn’t feel like a Coen Brothers movie so much as a film school movie by someone who’d watched a few of their films. It felt clumsy and obvious, two things I almost never feel about their movies. It’s pretty to look at, though.

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