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Barton Fink: Arguably the Greatest Coen Brothers Film?



John Turturro on the beach in Barton Fink

Hollywood’s inclination towards romanticizing the art of writing is a familiar tale. Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is one such example of a screenplay that darts in and out of the Parisian “café culture,” as screenwriter Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) picks the brains of the ‘Lost Generation’ off the cobbled streets of the French Capital. Gil utilizes a pensive Hemingway and the sensitivity of F. Scott Fitzgerald as literary sounding boards, as he takes a trip back in time seeking inspiration to help counteract his writer’s block.

The capricious, wandering, purposeless writing souls as portrayed in film is perhaps a tad clichéd nowadays, an exhausted narrative, especially compared to the brilliance of certain real writers. Like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the writing/directing duo the Coen Brothers are two of a kind, unrestricted by boundaries and conventions, constantly challenging common ground, somehow locating nuances within the already nuanced.

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1991 was a big year in film, most notably for Jonathan Demme’s Silence of The Lambs near clean-sweep at the Oscars. While Demme, Foster, Hopkins & co. took in the adulation at the Academy Awards, the Coen Brothers were one of the 90s winners of the Palme d’Or and had a sweep of their own at Cannes for their new picture, Barton Fink. Their awards haul would actually lead the Cannes Film Festival to change their rules so that no single film could dominate in such a way again, and yet Barton Fink would subsequently go on to become a box office flop.

30-years-later and that paltry figure of $6.1 million grossed at cinemas is not a defining statistic in Barton Fink’s now decorated reception as one of the greatest, most unique, and infuriatingly allegorical films ever made. With a filmography featuring the likes of No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski, Fargo, and True Grit, it is a symbol of real commendation that Barton Fink is arguably the blue diamond in the Coen Brothers treasure chest.

Related: The Coen Brothers: How the Directors Dissect American Culture

Barton Fink, unlike the aforementioned Woody Allen movie, doesn’t contain the generic platitudes of a directionless, fastidious writer who ventures out to a foreign city in hopes of a burst of creative flair (although LA may as well be foreign to Barton, in a perfect John Turturro performance). Beginning in his native New York, Fink is an apparently gifted and celebrated Broadway playwright whose promise leads him into a role with Capitol Pictures to become a screenwriter over on the West Coast, in Los Angeles.

Initially skeptical about his new position, Fink relocates to LA, checking into the dingy Hotel Earle where he is neighbors with the ‘everyman’ insurance salesman, Charlie Meadows (in one of John Goodman’s greatest roles). Fink spends his days and nights frantically typing away on his typewriter like some kind of screenwriting maniac, with each draft inevitably destined for the bin.