Joel and Ethan Coen’s hermetic tale of a ‘genius’ playwright’s brief stint as a studio contract writer is a painstakingly miniaturist work that can be read any number of ways. This film will appeal to buffs at least as much as the brothers’ last, Miller’s Crossing.
Title character, played with a creepily growing sense of dread by John Turturro, is a gravely serious New York dramatist who scores a soaring triumph on Broadway in 1941 with a deep-dish think piece about the working class. In Hollywood he is assigned a Wallace Beery wrestling programmer and told to come up with something by the end of the week.
Checking into a huge, slightly frayed and weirdly underpopulated hotel, he becomes friendly with the hulking fellow bachelor next door, Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), an insurance salesman with a gift for gab. Working at home, Fink suffers from intense writer’s block.
After a little more than an hour, the pic is thrown in a wholly unexpected direction. There is a shocking murder, the presence of a mysterious box in Fink’s room, the revelation of another’s character’s sinister true identity, three more killings, a truly weird hotel fire and the humiliation of the writer after he believes he’s finally turned out a fine script.
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Scene after scene is filled with a ferocious strength and humor. Michael Lerner’s performance as a Mayer-like studio overlord is sensational. Goodman is marvelous as the folksy neighbor, rolling his tongue around pages of wonderful dialog. Judy Davis nicely etches a woman who has a way with difficult writers, and John Mahoney turns up as a near dead ringer for William Faulkner in his Hollywood period.
1991: Nominations: Best Supp. Actor (Michael Lerner), Art Direction, Costuem Design