[box cover]

Barton Fink

There are countless pleasures to be found in the films of the Coen Brothers, many of them to be discovered only on multiple viewings. The writer/directing team makes movies that reveal their myriad treasures again and again, and each time one returns to Miller's Crossing or The Big Lebowski, new insights, surprising bits of humor, and small moments that slipped by unnoticed await. This is especially true of Barton Fink (1991), a dark, delightful, and disturbing comedy which offers layer upon layer of allegory and allusion, becoming more accessible with each revisit. Set in 1941, Barton (John Turturro) is a playwright who's just had his first big Broadway success. Obsessed with the "theater of the common man," the thoroughly Red artiste accepts a high-paying gig writing films in Hollywood, thinking that he can make a difference and bring his thoughtful intellectualism to the masses. Instead, he's assigned a Wallace Beery wrestling picture by the head of the studio (played with bombastic glee by Michael Lerner), the exec laying out why they've hired him with the non-explanation "...we all want it to have that Barton Fink feeling. And I guess we've all had that Barton Fink feeling. But since you're Barton Fink, I'm assuming you have it in spades!" Ensconced in a seedy Hollywood hotel, Barton comes down with an excruciating case of writer's block, his surroundings marked by an ominous, wet splotch on the ceiling above his bed and a cheesy painting of a sunbathing woman staring out at the sea. Among the brilliantly drawn characters he encounters are John Goodman as a traveling salesman with a disturbing secret; a jaded, hyperkinetic producer (Tony Shalhoub); a hilariously annoying bellboy (Steve Buscemi); and a Faulkneresque writer (John Mahoney) with a serious drinking problem — plus his world-weary "secretary" (Judy Davis) who writes most of his work for him. Part surreal comedy, part mystery, part historical satire, Barton Fink uses the hell of the Hollywood studio system to create a canny parable about, of all things, the rise of Nazism — Barton, the effete left-leaning intellectual, sells out his non-existent talents while yapping about how he wants to tell the stories of the "common man" (never mind that common man Goodman can't get a word in edgewise to tell his story); meanwhile, a horror grows in the room right next door, but Barton's too self-absorbed to notice until a monstrous Holocaust of flame and destruction consumes the hotel. Along the way, the movie — which won the Palm d'Or at Cannes, as well as Best Director and Best Actor — delivers a dead-funny tale about an artist trapped in his own personal nightmare, marked with the Coens' brilliant dialogue and distinctive storytelling style. Fox's DVD release is exceptionally attractive, offering a very good anamorphic transfer (1.66:1). As with most Coen films, there's a lot of detail on-screen, with a lot of shadows and darkness in several of the scenes; everything here is rich, clear, and crisp. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (offered in English, French, or Spanish) is very good as well; this is dialogue-heavy picture, and the sound is more than adequate for the task (English and Spanish subtitles are on board). Extras include eight deleted scenes, presented with the theatrical material in black-and white (to provide context) and the deleted material in color. These outtakes are less "scenes" than slivers shaved off of the film to expedite the story — none are noteworthy. Also here are trailers for Barton Fink, Miller's Crossing, and Raising Arizona, as well as a still gallery (which we could not get to work on our review player). Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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