#187) Fargo (1996)

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#187) Fargo (1996)

OR “Columb-oh, yah!”

Directed by Joel Coen

Written by Joel & Ethan Coen

Class of 2006

The Plot: Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is a car dealer in over his head in 1987 Minneapolis. In order to pay off a massive debt, Jerry arranges for criminals Carl and Gaear (Steve Buscemi & Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife Jean (Kristin Rudrüd) and extort a ransom from her wealthy father/Jerry’s boss Wade (Harve Presnell). Things get complicated when endlessly pleasant and relentlessly persistent Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) starts to investigate. Based on a true story…kinda. Sorta. Okay, not really. But kinda.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives a brief rundown of plot and accolades, but no specific superlatives, other than the film is a “dark comedy” with a “quirky cast of characters”. “Fargo” is one of only six films to make the NFR at the minimum ten-year mark.

But Does It Really?: Can I just say “Oh, yah” and move on? It’s not my pick for the best Coen Brothers film (I’m sticking with “No Country for Old Men”) but “Fargo” is one of their most accessible, twistedly funny films. The Coens’ trademark quirkiness and spare but off-putting violence is neatly balanced by Frances McDormand’s bright, lovable performance. It may not be the real Fargo, but the Coens create a totally realized world with these characters and they have a lot of fun peeking into various small corners. “Fargo” is a film that is remembered for its atmosphere as much as its dialogue or characters. Like the town within the film, “Fargo” is a lovely place to visit.

Everybody Gets One: Most of the creatives will be back for “The Big Lebowski”, but this is the only stop so far for stars Frances McDormand and William H. Macy. Also along for the ride is special guest star Jose Feliciano!

Wow, That’s Dated: Checkbooks! I remember those! Also, Jean’s kidnapping probably could have been prevented if she had a cell phone instead of relying on the landline.

Title Track: The town of Fargo is only spoken twice in the film: once by Jean and once by Jerry. Despite very little of the film taking place there, the Coens chose “Fargo” as the title because it sounded better than “Brainerd”.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Fargo” came into the 1997 Oscars with seven nominations, including Best Picture. It was second to the 12 accumulated by “The English Patient”, which ended up dominating the night. “Fargo” did, however, manage two wins: Frances McDormand for Best Actress (though her speech did not include a plea for an “inclusion rider”) and the Coens’ first Oscars for Best Original Screenplay.

Other notes

  • A quick word on Oscar’s category placement: McDormand won Lead Actress, while Macy was nominated for Supporting Actor, even though they have an almost equal amount of screentime (by at least one account he has more). This film has three “lead” characters: Marge, Jerry, and Carl. None of them are more the lead than the others, but they all exist in that gray “co-lead” area that the Oscars hate trying to figure out. PolyGram opted to make established star McDormand the lead, a strategy that paid off.
  • How weird must it have been in 1996 to watch a film set in the ‘80s? I imagine it’s the same feeling I had watching “Lady Bird”. Wasn’t that yesterday?
  • If this film were made in the early ‘60s, Jack Lemmon would have played Jerry. William H. Macy does some very Lemmon-esque stammering in the role.
  • Thanks to some archive footage while channel surfing, this film gives NFR status to Ed McMahon and Bruce Campbell.
  • Kristin Rudrüd (Jean, aka “the vic”) is actually from Fargo, North Dakota.
  • This film was the beginning of Harve Presnell’s second act as crotchety character actor. His first act was as a successful stage and recording star.
  • It was somewhere during all of the financial jargon between Jerry and Wade that I started asking myself, “Isn’t Frances McDormand in this film?”
  • Stan Grossman? The “Little Miss Sunshine” guy?
  • Marge doesn’t show up until about 30 minutes in, but it’s worth it. How could you not like her?
  • John Carroll Lynch is also delightful as Marge’s supportive husband Norm. I remember him best as Drew Carey’s cross-dressing brother.
  • Just a reminder that Melissa Peterman (Hooker #2) went on to host “Bet On Your Baby”, perhaps the finest American television program ever.
  • Welp, I just saw either Steve Buscemi’s butt or a stunt butt. Either way, I can never un-see that.
  • My pick for best quirky secondary character in this film is Bain Boehlke as Mr. Mohra. “She thought I should call it in so…I called it in. …End of story.”
  • The nice thing about the entire Marge storyline is that she is the only character in the film that is allowed to have a life outside of this story. Her last scene is a lovely little cap to the film.
  • Coen storyboard artist J. Todd Anderson plays “Victim in the Field”, and is credited as the “Artist Formerly Known as Prince” symbol.

Legacy

  • An attempt at a TV series in 1997 starring a pre-fame Edie Falco never took off. A 2014 series, however, continues to find success. It’s based in the same continuity as the film, and is an entertaining test of famous people’s “Minnesota Nice” accents.
  • The real Fargo, North Dakota isn’t like the one in the film, but they’ve held onto a few props (most notably the wood-chipper) and host occasional screenings for tourists and locals alike.
  • Peter Stormare named his rock band “Blonde From Fargo” after what most fans refer to him as.
  • An urban legend surrounding the film emerged when Japanese tourist Takao Kinishi was found dead in Detroit Lakes, not too far from Fargo. Due to some information being lost in translation, some believed that she flew from Tokyo to find the briefcase of money hidden by Steve Buscemi in the film. This story has inspired two different films: the 2003 documentary “This Is a True Story” and the 2014 fictional narrative “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter”.

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