Episode 31: Cops & Robbersons (1994, Michael Ritchie) & Barton Fink (1991, Joel & Ethan Coen)

This episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast is about banality and the people who make it by trade.

In the heat of anger Bill Murray once yelled “medium talent!” in Chevy Chase’s face. Few knew then that that name would be synonymous with mediocrity of talent and unspectacularly fatal career killing behavior of drugs and personal boorish behavior. Rather than go on in a flame of major flops, Chase’s film career descended by inches. By 1994 the depths were already being dug as low as they’d go before coming out the other side of the Earth into a postscript career of being in on the joke in small roles like Dirty Work, the Comedy Central Friar’s Club roast special and a pundit on MSNBC.

Director Michael Ritchie of past glorious like The Bad News Bears doesn’t help any more than he could for Chase in Fletch Lives although the timing of the mostly horrible supporting cast is as well paced as can be. Chase probably got him the job for a quick buck a chance to work with Jack Palance, whose late 80s mainstream career resurgence was waning. Unlike his assured, auto-pilot screen persona, Chase struggles to define his personality beyond the goofy dad act the Vacation movies branded him by and settles for acting as mentally disabled as we’d see before Tom Green in Freddy Got Fingered.

The Coens can’t catch a break. Yes, they’re beloved by the critics and fans. Yes, they’ve won Oscars including Best Picture for No Country For Old Men just a couple years ago. However, when they’ve consciously tried to please the common man with stuff like The Ladykillers, The Hudsucker Proxy or Intolerable Cruelty, the common man ignores them. When they’re true to their own backgrounds as in Fargo people think that’s all they are, and when they go off on a lark of casual comedic brilliance as in The Big Lebwoski it takes the common dudes ten years to recognize their ultimate icon.

Barton Fink has a lot of the same problems and a lot more delusions. He’s also a 1940s playwright turned screenwriter and his Hollywood is another world. To this effect, the first pairing of Coens with their future preferred director of photography makes Barton’s descent into the hells of writer’s block, pushy bigwigs and above all his own dangerously naive delusions a formal exercise in a nightmare on film. This is one of the driest black comedies ever made and John Goodman is as unforgettable as he would be in Lebowski in his role as a common man.

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