Playwright Barton Fink (John Turturro) has been watching the opening night of his new play being performed on the New York stage, and even though the audience give him a standing ovation at the end of it, he cannot truly bask in his newfound glory. He meets a few acquaintances at a club afterwards, and they are keen to tell him about the rave reviews he is getting, but he would rather not hear them, and makes his excuses to see his agent at the bar. There he informs him that getting to the truth of the common man's plight is what solely concerns him, no compromises, no appealing to the critics - but his agent has a new job for him...
"Barton Fink! Barton Fink! Barton Fink!" This was the film that won an unprecedented three awards at Cannes in its year, and went on to be widely acclaimed by critics who would not have impressed its title character. The idea came to its creators, the Coen Brothers, during a period of writer's block which explains why Barton suffers that same, dreaded ailment for most of his story, but conveying the plight of the writer has not always been the easiest thing to do in the context of a movie, so the filmmakers are forced to come up with ways of depicting the frustration in other ways. The manner in which the Coens did this was typically unconventional, and you'll either go along with it or you won't.
That new job Barton has been offered is to go to Hollywood and write a film for Capital Pictures; he is not sure at first, but his agent reassures him that it's easy money and will go on to provide for him as he composes his next play. After a meeting with the head of the company, the overbearing Jack Lipnick (a superb Michael Lerner), Barton thinks he'll give it a go, and is soon sitting in his hotel room in front of his typewriter staring at a blank page. Basically, the writer is being made a fool of, and we can see that all his overearnest talk of producing works that speak to the common man (those two words practically become his catchphrase) are nothing compared to his experience of the real world.
So were the Coens lampooning themselves here? Or were they shooting down the pretentions of scribes in general and their arrogance that they could possibly get to the heart of what concerned their audience when that audience simply wanted to be entertained, and not given a lecture? Certainly you don't feel as if the filmmakers are terribly well disposed towards their protagonist given the ordeal they put him through, yet this could be a form of self-flagellation that exposes the sham of concocting fiction that you wish to say something about the state of the world with, or even the state of one man. What Barton has to do is script a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery, and that turns out to be a Herculean task, though the Coens do sympathise with him when faced with the crass commercialism expected of him once he's in Los Angeles.
Silence is important in these early stages, and anythng that interrupts that eerie calm is a disturbing event, be it the clack of Barton's typewriter keys or the man sobbing from the room next door. That man is an insurance salesman calling himself Charlie Meadows (John Goodman, another great performance), who epitomises the working man that Barton romanticises, so naturally he proves to be unable to divine anything about him at all, as Charlie is far more complex - and dangerous - than the mentally cloistered Fink could ever imagine. Also in the story are a writer, W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney) and his secretary Audrey (Judy Davis) who tries and fails to keep him off the bottle, another example of how the Coens seem to believe that the writing business is not exactly for the healthiest people around. Yet while the presentation is impeccable, and its twist into the sinister is something to relish, what the film boils down to is giving Barton an emotional kicking for two hours, and there's a point where it ceases to be funny and verges on the sadistic. Music by Carter Burwell.