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Barton Fink earns the Mad Dog seal of approval


Written by Ethan and Joel Coen.

Directed by Joel Coen.

Starring John Turturro

and John Goodman.

Now playing at Loews Harvard Square.



IN OUR CONSTANT QUEST FOR AN award-winning flick, the Mad Dog Movie Masters chose Barton Fink, winner of three, count 'em, three awards at the Cannes Film Festival -- best film, best director, and best actor (John Turturro).

New York, 1941. Barton Fink receives rave reviews for his brilliantly written play depicting tenement fishmongers. Hearing of this meager man's 15 minutes of fame, Capitol Pictures offers him an opportunity to write for the big screen in California. Although Fink is reluctant to be weaned from his motherland, he is soon won over by the shouts of "Big money! Big money! No whammy!" echoing through his skull.

In Los Angeles, Fink checks into the Hotel Elmore, whose motto, "For a Day or a Lifetime," tells the whole story. Room 621 provides the shockingly surreal setting for much of the rest of this picture.

Assigned to work on writing a wrestling movie for Capitol, Fink finds his brain constricted by writer's block. He struggles to overcome his block, but to no avail. It is Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), Fink's neighbor and only friend at the Elmore, who supports Fink, bringing him a little closer to reality -- all of this skillfully crafted by the Coen brothers.

John Turturro continues to follow one good performance with another. Recovering from Jungle Fever, he delivers perfectly. Fink is insanely, obsessively driven by his mission as a writer. The scenes in which his obsession comes to a head are perhaps Turturro's finest ever. As the wallpaper in Fink's room peels oozing paste, we see Fink's pathetic life disintegrating into useless waste.

John Goodman gives what is arguably his finest performance as well. His portrayal of Fink's affable but lonely neighbor is so credible that the Mad Dogs flipped when he let the hammer fall on his 12-gauge to the words "Heil Hitler." Goodman deserves high praise for taking this role in a film that is less mainstream than his previous endeavors, like King Ralph and Always. (The Mad Dogs disagreed on whether an Academy Award is in Goodman's near future.)

Directors Ethan and Joel Coen present Barton Fink with a Mad Dog flair unmatched since Raising Arizona. Each character in this picture is magnified by the intense display of scenery, camera angles, and color. Fink's peculiar combination of afro, round spectacles, and cluelessness gives the audience a revealing glimpse into his soul.

Likewise, Capitol Pictures' head honcho appears only in grandiose settings, wearing pastel-colored suits and always dominating the conversation. But perhaps even more ingenious is the Coens' delicious combination of symbolism and imagery that left the Mad Dogs licking our chops on the way out. With the Coens' immeasurable talent, they could have given Mr. Rogers a cult following.

What will hurt this film the most is its sheer incomprehensibility to the common man. Now, granted, the Mad Dog Movie Masters are not rocket scientists, but we're not idiots either. And even such movie veterans as us sometimes found ourselves groping for a clue.

Barton Fink is filled with off-the-wall, skewed humor that kept the Mad Dogs constantly on our toes. Not one piece of this film was shot without being force-fed a full menu of offbeat humor. It is this trait alone that will send viewers in herds to admire this exotic animal, Barton Fink. This flick did not rock the Mad Dog house, but it sure came close. It's a ballsy film that makes you think -- about life, about the human condition, and about reality. We give Barton Fink an impressive 3 out of 4 Mad Dogs on the Mad Dog Movie Scale.