Barton Fink (John Turturro) enters via a Wellesian pirouette behind Broadway curtains, where he's a toasted wunderkind but already unmoored. Plays about "the little people" and "the common man" get you a Hollywood deal in the Thirties, so the New York smarty-pants heads west and ends up in some kind of Overlook Hotel with invisible mosquitoes and noisily peeling wallpaper. "Can you tell a story," the studio kingpin (Michael Lerner) demands: They need a screenplay for a wrestling potboiler but their genius is stuck on the first paragraph, "a little trouble getting started." Barton checks in with a fellow slumming great writer (John Mahoney), who drunkenly declares "truth is a tart that does not bear scrutiny" to his secretary (Judy Davis) before slapping her. The protagonist is meant to amalgamate Clifford Odets, George S. Kaufman and, as befits a tale of talent distorted, Joel Coen himself. Other facsimiles pinned to the lens include Louis B. Meyer, William Faulkner (or it F. Scott Fitzgerald?) and, I suppose, the Devil himself -- John Goodman's affable next-door neighbor chuckles and sweats until he totes shotgun and barrels down a burning hall. After three pictures, the Coens stop to take stock. Where does inspiration come from? The stumped writer wakes up next to a gore-drenched corpse, and his creativity is unclogged. "You read the Bible?" "Think so... Anyway, I've heard about it." David Lynch can track the camera down the kitchen sink, but sardonic mannerism is a poor substitute for the thrust of genuine artistic obsessiveness, so with the Coens it becomes yet another brick in an academic Grand Guignol treatise. By the time Turturro's Harold Lloydian schmuck staggers out of his room with a literal package of symbolism under his arm, the hotel corridors have come to resemble not the artist's churning mind but the filmmakers' conjoined colon. Cinematography by Roger Deakins. With Tony Shalhoub, Jon Polito, and Steve Buscemi.
--- Fernando F. Croce