A portrait of a tormented writer, the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink, set in 1941 Hollywood, holds up as an accurate depiction of both the grueling, non-collaborative creative process and the skewed dynamic that comes with being employed by anyone in a creative facet. Of course, the film covers a vast array of themes, all connected to one another, and far too many to wrap your head around during the first viewing alone, but like any great film, that’s also the fun of it.
It follows our titular playwright (John Turturro) as he migrates to Los Angeles after being hired to write a B-grade movie about wrestling. Writing “for the common man,” but appealing to the snobbish aristocrats of New York, Barton Fink thinks very highly of himself and is initially hesitant about taking the job in LA. But after his agent persuades him, he agrees. He’s put up as a resident in the Hotel Earle, a rundown hotel with apparently many patrons, but none of whom you ever see. That is, except for Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), Barton’s overbearing neighbor, an insurance salesman who gets acquainted with the writer one night after Barton reports to the front desk of loud laughter coming from Charlie’s room.
The film tackles the question of how a writer can write about such grounded ideas if he’s apparently so out of touch with reality. Barton might be a stereotypical writer type, but also one who wasn’t so uncommon back in the 1940s, or even today perhaps: a self-absorbed individual with heightened delusions of grandeur for the importance of what he does. Barton is a man with philosophies that are rooted in ideals rather than self-aware realities, ostensibly aiming to write for the “common man,” yet never wanting to take the time to figure out what that actually means. And when he finally is handed a common man like Charlie, he itches to leave instead of taking notes.
Believe it or not, there are real creatives like this. Disconnected from reality and the actual common man, it’s these writers who so often architect the films and shows that help to shape the ethos and zeitgeist of our culture. They plop down at a desk in a room by themselves for days, weeks, and even months on end and attempt to speak on humanity. And what’s worse is we usually buy what’s being sold.
Barton doesn’t see how both Broadway and Hollywood are driven by money. While theater is much more intimate and a more direct way for the audiences—and raving critics—to see the culmination of a writer’s work, cinema is literally “for the common man.” However, our protagonist expresses contempt for this medium and views it as inferior because of its very audience.
Throughout the film we see how Barton’s writer’s block affects his work on his screenplay. Trying to find inspiration to write a movie that’s merely supposed to be popcorn entertainment, he seeks the help of his favorite author, W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), a drunk has-been who offers nothing useful, except to provide our protagonist with a cautionary tale.
The head of the studio, Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), almost literally brown-noses Barton prior to receiving any sort of finished draft, and yet every single action is disingenuous. He “fires” employees to flaunt his power and satisfy Barton, yet these employees are seen very much at work the next time they meet. He tells the writer he’s going to send him to a better hotel rather than the rundown Hotel Earle, but this never happens. He’s the kind of phony Hollywood type exaggerated perfectly to the extent that only Joel and Ethan Coen would take it.