Has history done right by Clifford Odets? The once famous proletarian playwright of Waiting for Lefty and Golden Boy is known today, if at all, largely for the hilarious caricature of him offered up by John Turturro in this 1991 Coen Brothers film. Like Odets, Fink is a socially conscious writer who gravitates toward Hollywood, where he's assigned to write a film by the Louis B. Mayer/Harry Cohn-style movie mogul played by Michael Lerner. (Odets' Hollywood-era work includes The Big Knife, a harsh portrayal of just such a producer.) The postmodernist Coens have it in for the high-art aspirations of both politicized writ-ers like Odets, ridiculed here, and those of a modernist master like sometime screenwriter William Faulkner, cartooned in this movie as a nasty drunk. The Coens really don't like anything -- their working-class hero (John Goodman) is psychotic, and the popular art of Hollywood filmmaking is to them as crass and stupid as the "wrestling picture for Wally Beery" Fink has to write. I've actually seen a wrestling picture with Wallace Beery, John Ford's Flesh (1932), and it's pretty good -- as are Odets' screenplays for films like The Sweet Smell of Success. His atypical Cary Grant vehicle, None But the Lonely Heart, which he also directed, is sensitive and intelligent. Now while in real life Odets may actually have finked in the 1950s on his Communist-sympathizing past, the arrogant idiot played by Turturro in this brilliant, disturbing film -- a rare attempt by the Coens to do something creatively ambitious, abandoned in these days of lazy comedies like The Big Lebowski -- is a corrective too far.
-- Gregg Rickman
Barton Fink screens Tuesday, May 12, at 7:15 and 9:35 p.m. at the Red Vic, 1727 Haight (at Clayton). Tickets are $6; call 668-3994.