The story starts out simple and conventional enough. We meet the titular character (John Turturro) in the moment of his breakthrough triumph as he opens a successful proletariat play in New York and is summoned to Hollywood for a quick cash-grab on his presumptive journey to crafting a new and better theatre “for the common man”. Arriving with a cocksure attitude and a slight disdain for his new employers he runs into the brick wall that is Hollywood which neither wants nor cares about Barton Fink’s higher goals. His new boss hands him a wrestling B-movie to get the “Fink treatment” and send him on his merry way. All would be well if not for the only problem is that the Fink’s grandiose expectations of his abilities meet the grim reality of his underwhelming talent.
John Turturro does a great job portraying Barton Fink as equal parts likeable and punchable. He is insecure, quiet, and uncomfortable in his own skin. He feels apprehensive about his own play, even though it is successful, because he finds his work merely adequate. Much like every budding artist out there, he seeks success but fears that popularity would mean he’s a hack. He gets passionate about making authentic plays that represent and are for the “common man”, and yet is completely uninterested when an actual common man tries to tell his stories. Earnest but naive, he wants to make the world a better place through his art but never stops to wonder if that is truly what the world wants.
Trapped in a derelict and overheated hotel in Los Angeles (of his own choosing, for added authenticity for his craft), Fink is slowly forced to confront his own inabilities as all his talk of the theatre of the common man does nothing to help him and his typewriter muster any magic to break his writer’s block and come up with anything remotely inspiring for his B-movie. Everyday he is summoned to his producer’s office, and everyday he is mocked as his producer’s secretary hammers away at lightning speed on her typewriter, producing words without thought or care while every pathetic sentence he writes is pure agony.
Breaking the monotony of this writer’s hell is the presence of Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), Fink’s next door neighbour. Boisterous, loud, down-to-earth, and slightly odd, he is everything that Fink is not and more importantly is a close-to-perfect personification of the “common man” that Fink so desperately wants to write about and for. The problem is that Fink’s curiosity about the “common man” does not extend beyond the theoretical. And worse, it seems that the longer Fink gets to know Charlie Meadows the more it seems that his “common man” has little interest in the kind of art Fink wants to create. Instead Meadows loves and venerates the very dreck that Fink is desperate to rise above. Rather than helping Fink write about the “common man” all Meadows seems to do is complicate Fink’s very neat picture of what is wrong with the world and how to fix it.
In typical Coen brothers fashion, Fink’s existential crisis is not alleviated but worsened when he realizes that his literary idol W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney) has also reduced his great stature to a “mere” Hollywood screenwriter. Compounding the issue is that he seems to be very content (if drunk) to not only reduce himself to a script monkey but to also let his secretary Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis) to ghostwrite his scripts and last few novels under his name. Each and every encounter in Los Angeles is just another chance to create more cracks in Fink’s picturesque worldview.
Now in a normal good movie, this midpoint crisis would resolve itself either with a moment of existential clarity from Fink when he realizes the arrogance of his ways and by lowering his lofty standards manages to produce a script that is both artistically good and crowd-pleasing, all thanks to his good friend Charlie Meadows. A bad movie would decide that the problem is not Barton Fink but the terrible plebeians who don’t get his grand vision, and so by producing his grand masterpiece of the common man he proves everyone wrong and he gets his grand dream of art for the common man, again all thanks to his good friend Charlie Meadows.
But fortunately for us we are in neither of those movies but are instead in fact, in a Coen brothers movie. And so this mid-point of the movie that is centred on artistic stagnancy and compromised vision simply becomes the launch point for a murder mystery complete with love triangles, mistaken identity, serial killers, hard boiled detectives, and an over-the-top finale. The grand joke is that Barton Fink, having so long resisted and rejected low and popular art, now finds his own life is a B-movie.
It’s the kind of oddball masterstroke that earns Ethan and Joel Coen’s place as must-see modern directors. It is hard not to see in Barton Fink a self-referential critique. Like Fink they too are New-York educated kids who have found themselves firmly in “low-art” Hollywood. Like Fink their start was not glamorous either on the surface, editing Sam Raimi’s demon-zombie debut Evil Dead. And yet, as Barton Fink the movie shows, it is possible to have your cake and eat it too. It is possible to create popular art from “low genres” and be smart and thought-provoking and artful. As Gene Siskel put it, “those who complain about [Hollywood] being some sort of amorphous evil have only themselves to blame. They themselves are the problem.”
This repudiation of those who turn their nose at Hollywood was bold when Barton Fink was made as it still was at the beginning of their careers. But as the last 26 years have proven, the Coen brothers have put their money where their mouth is by crafting classic after classic that are both entertaining and smart from Fargo to The Big Lebowski to their biggest triumph No Country for Old Men. And in that sense Barton Fink’s ultimate message might just be that in the battle of principles over product, the greater good might be to create anything than to create nothing at all.