The kids have already been introduced to the Joel and Ethan Coen, first through their Horatio Alger business fairy tale Hudsucker Proxy, more recently through that weird concoction of quirk and grit that is Fargo. So – unsure what would be the result – it was time to introduce Ben to what I consider to be the Brother’s Coen’s very best picture: Barton Fink.
The title character of this 1991 dark work (played by John Turturro) is an idealistic, young playwright who, after a smash hit on Broadway, is offered the chance to write for the pictures. This requires him to relocate to Hollywood where he splits his time between the studio and a residential hotel, each of which compete for the most hellish tormenter of Barton’s soul.
On the studio lot, he has to navigate between Jack Lipnick, the crazed megalomaniac who helms the studio (played brilliantly by Michael Lerner), and other Hollywood types including studio player Ben Geisler (Tony Shalhoub), a Faulkner-like fellow writer (also a sous and brute) W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney) and Mayhew's secretary-with-a-secret Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis).
Speaking of secrets, Barton shares the floor of his decaying hotel with traveling insurance salesman Charlie Meadows (played by John Goodman). On the surface, Charlie is one of the ordinary schmoes Barton writes about in his “socially relevant” dramas. But might he be more than that?
While the characterizations in this ensemble alone would make Barton Fink a masterpiece, the locations (especially Barton’s hotel/prison) are are almost characters in their own right. And no film in history has depicted the lunacy of Hollywood and the suffering associated with writer’s block with Barton Fink’s combination of cinematography and mania.
The kids are definitely getting schooled enough in film to start exposing them to stories that require appreciation of the self-referentiality that has led to more than one Hollywood classic (from Singing in the Rain to The Player, Hollywood’s best products tend to be about itself). But I wasn’t sure how Ben would react to some of the surprises in the story, especially those that appear on the surface to be surreal diversions, but in fact speak volumes about the nature of a main character (in this case, the seemingly talented but ultimately shallow Fink).
So, Ben, what did Barton do for you?
Ben Replies: It was so incredibly different from Fargo that I was caught by surprise. But I ended up loving Barton Fink. It was a truly intriguing movie that left me with more to think about than I’m used to at the end of earlier movie nights. The acting and writing were great. My biggest criticism was that at times the performances were too subtle, which meant you couldn’t really tell what what the film was trying to say until long after you finish watching it. This meant I like the film less for perfect storytelling or intense entertainment, than for its thoughtful and meticulous qualities. In summary, I really liked it (although maybe not as much as Dad).