Barton Fink

1991 movie

Rating: 19/20

Plot: The titular playwright rides the success of his play about the plight of common men to a contract with a film studio and is hired to write a movie about wrestling. He moves to L.A. where he struggles with the screenplay and makes some friends.

I know that I saw black comedy before Barton Fink, but I'm not sure I appreciated the genre as much before I saw this. I guess this just came along at the perfect time in my life, and I found it easy to connect with its dry humor, its surreal glimpse of one man's personal hell, and its many incomprehensibilities. I didn't understand it back then, but it was a movie with these overly-colorful characters in this setting that seems to be right from somebody's lackadaisical nightmare that I just felt, one of those movies that keeps coming back and rubbing up against your leg long after you're finished with it. I don't think it was the first artsy-fartsy movie that I liked--I'd seen Eraserhead--but it was the one that made me actively seek out more artsy-fartsy movies and turned me into a Coen brothers fan. And you know what? I still don't have a grasp on this one twenty years after I saw it which, for me at least, puts it right up there with a lot of my favorite movies, works of art, writings, or music. It's a riddle that I'll always love diving into.

What a look the Coens capture with this! It's almost like they wanted to see how many different shades of brown they could squeeze on the screen. The movie's got this dusty tint which adds to the dreamlike tone. And I love the shots of the peeling wallpaper, the mosquito cam, all these absurdly long hallways (sometimes with shoes laid out in front of the doors) and balconies, and some of that typical quietly flamboyant Coen camera work. The movie's also got such colorful characters, both the major and minor ones, that are wonderfully performed by a few Coen regulars. Turturro's almost a straight man in this, but he gets more than enough chances to stand out on his own when his character passionately engages in one-sided discussions about the importance of his work or gets angry or nervous about something. Charlie's the perfect role for Goodman whose smile is as big as the hotel room. This was when Goodman became Goodman for me since I was too distracted by the genius of Nicolas Cage to notice him in Raising Arizona and only really knew him from Roseanne and Revenge of the Nerds. He and his chins are just such a physical presence in this. John Mahoney--who is the coolest guy ever according to a history teacher I used to work with who was an extra in some movie that Mahoney had something to do with--is also very good as the writer, W.P. Mayhew. Buscemi's Chet, Judy Davis's Audrey, Michael Lerner's Lipnick, Tony Shalhoub's Geisler, and Richard Portnow and Christopher Murney's Italian and German detectives are all smaller but still memorable roles that add such color to the Coen's world. And then there's the humor. Chet's double introduction of himself (Chet!) is my personal favorite moment, probably because of Steve Buscemi's teeth, but I also love the very first little "joke" where a guy screams "Fresh fish," a gag that is just so beautifully executed. As the characters maneuver through this landscape of surreal imagery and symbols, it's hard to know whether you're supposed to laugh at them or be horrified, and that's part of the magic of this movie. This will more than likely be a movie that I will always feel slightly lost within, kind of like its protagonist. No, that doesn't sound like a comfortable movie feeling, but it's a feeling that I'll never forget and one of the main reasons I started really liking movies in the first place.

My favorite line in the whole thing, by the way: "These are big movies about big men in tights, physically and mentally--especially physically."

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