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2/27/96

FARGO, the latest movie by the illustrious Coen brothers, does not take place in Fargo, North Dakota.

The opening credits inform us that the film is based on actual events that took place in Minnesota in 1987. The opening scene, however, _does_ occur in Fargo. Auto sales exec, Jerry Lundegaard (played by William Macy), drives to Fargo to deliver a brand new car. The lucky recipients are a pair of thugs whom Jerry has contracted to kidnap his wife, Jean. The deal is this: they grab Jean, Jean's wealthy father foots the ransom, the thugs get half and Jerry gets half to pay his way out of some trouble he's in.

Now, if everything worked out nicely, it would be a pretty dull movie. But it's clear from the outset that Jerry isn't... well, he doesn't really seem properly equipped for this sort of undertaking. Nor do the thugs. It doesn't take long for things to go awry. And it doesn't take long for Brainerd, MN police chief (and expectant mother) Margie Gunderson (played by Frances McDormand) to step in and start unraveling the case in her ever-so-casual way.

For Joel and Ethan Coen, this is a very straight movie. They've eschewed their trademark wild camera shots - no guns skidding across miles of floor, no drive-by diaper swoop-ups, no tracking shots down sink drains, no falling from skyscrapers. The sets are plain and realistic. The story, though captivating, is mundane.

Still, there is something unearthly, expressed through the locale: the vast parking lots that are never plowed; the colossus of Paul Bunyon outside of Brainerd; the highways, half-eaten by snow, leading nowhere in both directions. I think the feeling is epitomized in the opening shot of the movie. You see a small bird flapping against a grey sky. As the bird is flapping, two lights appear in the sky and you realize they are the headlights of a car driving through near white-out conditions. The two images remain overlapped until Jerry Lundegaard's car is atop us, rolling toward destiny in Fargo.

FARGO starts out with a lot more humor than it ends up with. Jerry Lundegaard is such a funny character - a smiling, friendly, wouldn't-hurt-a-fly schmo. His wife is even funnier and her abduction scene is _great_. Chief Margie Gunderson is a stitch, too - smiling, friendly, waddling about, working the case with great efficiency, but almost as if she were a waitress working a table. Minnesotan accents and mannerisms account for a chunk of the laughs. And there's Steve Buscemi (as one of the thugs) delivering the funniest profanity-peppered street talk in the business.

Gradually, though, the humor washes off and you're left with real people, real events and real consequences. A scene where Margie has lunch with an old high school acquaintance at first seemed superfluous to me. Then I realized it signaled the shift from lovable and laughable to cold and serious.

I liked this movie, but, you know... I wanted more. I wasn't as gripped as I could have been. The story seemed so faithful to events that it lacked a message. I found myself thinking of TO DIE FOR. That, too, was based on true events (albeit more loosely). But the way it reconstructed events made it more thought-provoking, and yet more playful... at the same time both lighter and weightier than FARGO. I didn't think the events portrayed in FARGO conveyed so much meaning in and of themselves that they could not have benefited from a touch more artistic license.

But look. The performances are strong, the direction good, the script fluent. There's a lot of crap out there and you can do a lot worse than FARGO.

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