Rick’s Favorite Movies, 1 of 52: “Fargo”

So I’m going to run through a review of my favorite movies of all time, adding every one for every week for the next year.  Two disclaimers:

1.  They’re not in order.  I’m just doing them as I get around to them in whatever order strikes my fancy.

2.  I am not claiming these to be the BEST 52 movies of all time.  They’re just my favorite.  I have chosen them based on… well, I can’t say why, I just did.  I gladly concede there will be many movies on my list that are not, in many ways, as good as movies that are not on my list.

Movie 1 is “Fargo,” released in 1996.  It was written, directed, edited, and everything elsed by Joel and Ethan Coen, and stars Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, and Harve Presnell.  The movie won two Academy Awards, for Best Actress (McDormand) and Best Screenplay, Original.

Frances McDormand as Chief Marge Gunderson. She won an Oscar. Trivia question; what movie did McDormand get first first Oscar nomination for?

Frances McDormand as Chief Marge Gunderson.

I would think most people have seen “Fargo,” it being one of the most critically acclaimed, beloved, and quotable movies of the last two decades.  It has spawned three seasons of a TV series, which is one hell of a series. I’m not going into a lot of detail on the movie’s plot and such, since either you’ve seen it or you should and I won’t totally spoil it.   The movie is, to say the least, masterfully written and made in almost every respect.  The direction and acting is astonishing; it says a lot that McDormand won the Oscar and I don’t think she was the best actor in this movie.

In fact – and this is one of three points I’m going to make here – I think the real acting tour de force here is by William H. Macy as poor, useless, bungling Jerry Lundegaard.  Macy’s performance is sublime; he is every bit the middle class man in serious shit he’s supposed to be.  He’s wonderfully shot and directed – watch how he always, always stomps the snow off his boots whenever coming inside, something Macy, a native Floridian, would have had to be told to do by the Coens, native Minnesotans.  Every tick, every stammer, every word is amazingly genuine (in the sense of him being a car salesman over his head; his character lies like a rug.)  In my mind Macy’s performance ranks with the best performances ever.  Ever.   As wonderful as Frances McDormand is, Macy was the real heart and soul of this film.

Which leads me to my second point.  What I like to think about when watching movies is to ask myself a question; what is this movie trying to do or say?  You can’t really rate movies based on “Acting” or “Screenwriting” unless you consider what the movie’s doing, what emotions it’s trying to elicit, or what message it’s trying to send.  Which is a better movie: “Gandhi” or “Back To The Future”?  Depends what you think the movies were trying to do.

“Fargo,” at its heart, is just trying to entertain; the Coens make a lot of movies just out of sheer fun.  But it you think about it, “Fargo” is about honesty.  “Fargo” has sometimes been criticized for making Minnesotans look stupid, but when you think about it that’s plainly idiotic; Marge Gunderson is as sharp as a tack and she’s the principal character, and the only objectively stupid characters are Showalter and Jerry.  What divides the characters is, simply, honesty.  Marge Gunderson is honest, a stand up cop who despite her folksy attitude is clearly the smartest person in the room at any given time.  Jerry Lundegaard, who has everything a man could want, has gotten himself head-deep in shit through dishonesty.  The scum he hires to execute his plan are dishonest to the core, doublecrossing themselves and Jerry.  At the end, those who lie have received their reward and taken some of the innocent with them, brought down by the honest and conscientious.  The final threads are brought together by an honest man – Mr. Mohra, who “called it in” when a weird guy talked shit at his bar, is who directs the Brainerd police to the location of the kidnappers – and a dishonest man,  Mike Yanagita, the emotionally troubled friend who tells lies that set off Marge’s suspicions about Jerry’s story, leading her back to him and causing him to reveal his bungling treachery.  As an additional ironic comment about honesty, the movie opens with a lie – that it’s a true story, which in fact it is not.   Indeed, the title is a lie; very little happens in Fargo, with most of the film taking place in Minneapolis and Brainerd.  (Though, according to the Coens, they called it Fargo because it just sounded better.)

The Coens return to this idea a lot.  In many of their films people are brought low because they are intent on getting what’s on front of them; they do not see the longer term, the bigger picture.

Anyway, my third point is to answer a question many people ask; do people in Minnesota talk like that?

Well, a few years ago I had to take a business trip to Brainerd.  I was DELIGHTED.  I was going to the setting of Fargo!  I planned to bring my sister souvenirs (she’s a big fan.)  But I got in so late I basically crashed in my hotel room at 1 AM and never had a chance to speak to anyone.

The following day I arrived at the customer’s place of business and the receptionist greeted me with:

“Yah, we were expectin’ ya!  Darn tootin’!  How ya doin?  Coffee?  You betcha!”

It was absolutely bang on.  Right out of the movie.  And I thought to myself “Rick, you can’t make a Fargo joke.  You can’t make a Fargo joke.”

I lasted 40 minutes before I made the first Fargo joke.

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