American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
If there is a favorite image in the movies by the Coen brothers, it’s of crass, venal men behind desks, who possess power the heroes envy. Maybe that’s because, like all filmmakers, the Coens have spent a lot of time on the carpet, pitching projects to executives. In “Blood Simple,” the guy behind the desk was M. Emmet Walsh, as a scheming private detective. In “Raising Arizona,” it was Trey Wilson’s furniture czar. In “Miller’s Crossing,” it was Albert Finney, as a mob boss. In “Barton Fink,” it is Michael Lerner, as the head of a Hollywood studio. All of these men are vulgar, smoke cigars, and view their supplicants with contempt.
To their desks come characters who want to make a deal with the devil. They know these men are evil, compromised and corrupt. But they want what they have - a lot of money. “Barton Fink,” the latest Coen film (directed by Joel, produced by Ethan, written by both), tells the story of a man who would like to sell out to Hollywood, if only he had the talent. Barton Fink is a left-wing New York playwright, modeled on the Clifford Odets of “Waiting for Lefty,” who writes one proletarian hand-wringer in the late 1930s and then is summoned to Hollywood, where Jack Lipnick (Lerner), the vulgarian in charge of Capitol Pictures, pays him piles of money and assigns him to write a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery.
Fink, played with a likable, dim earnestness by John Turturro, checks into an eerie hotel that looks designed by Edward Hopper. There is apparently only one other tenant, the affable Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), a traveling salesman who lives next door and says he could tell Fink a lot of interesting stories. But Fink, who claims to be the poet of the working man, is not interested in a real proletarian, and spends most of his time staring at his typewriter in despair. He has writer’s block.
Lou Breeze (Jon Polito), the studio czar’s right-hand man, tells Fink he should look up W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), another great American writer on the studio payroll. Mayhew is obviously modeled on William Faulkner, and Mahoney, with a moustache, is his uncanny double. Fink arrives breathlessly at the great man’s feet, only to discover that he is a raving drunk and that his “secretary” (Judy Davis) has written most of his recent work. The three go on a picnic one day, and the scene builds into a wry comic vignette - some satire, some slapstick.