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Corn and Callousness

To hear Ethan and Joel Coen talk these days, they're a couple of plain-spoken, rock-ribbed Midwesterners whose simple hearts remain in their home state of Minnesota. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course: The dominant qualities of the brothers' work--from Raising Arizona to Barton Fink to The Hudsucker Proxy--have always been hip knowingness, an obsession with old movies and a world-weary disdain for everything square and conventional. After all, Joel schooled at NYU, Ethan at Princeton, and both now consort with the slick predators of Hollywood: These cornfed boys have seen the bright lights of the big city.

But the age of miracles has not passed. The Coens' latest, Fargo, is set on the icy tundra of the upper Midwest, whence they came, and one of the reasons it's the best of their six feature films by a wide margin is that the moviemakers really do know the territory. They understand how winter chills the bones at dusk on a desolate stretch of highway in North Dakota. They know what's on the jukebox in the corner beer joint. And they have an ingrained (if grudging) affection for the locals--even when the locals are fooling around with kidnapping, extortion and murder. In contrast to the stubbornly artificial characters that inhabited earlier Coen films, the people in Fargo are as real as dirt--showing that you can go home again and, what's more, that you probably should.

For once this isn't a movie about other movies. That's probably because the material this time around comes from life--a bizarre 1987 Minnesota police case in which a bland car salesman suffering from financial problems hired a couple of thugs to kidnap his own wife for a ransom to be paid by his rich father-in-law. The blunt daring of the scam, and the disasters that inevitably follow, are far more compelling than the adventures of the pseudo-Communist screenwriters or cartoon-strip gangsters the Coens have conjured up in the past.

That doesn't mean the sneer, the black comedy or the punch have vanished from their work. For one thing, the kidnapping scheme's perpetrator, Jerry Lundegaard (a pseudonym), is not only a dim bulb, he's a cornball of numbing proportions. The Coens use the conflict between Jerry's small-town pieties and the bloody havoc he wreaks to huge comic effect, and the big, plain face and clunky moves of Coen veteran Bill Macy fit the portrait to a T. Macy's Jerry is such a klutz that the car buyers he's supposed to be conning wind up pushing him around, and the harsh, impatient father-in-law, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell, out of mothballs after 25 years), treats him like an errand boy; but the snowy landscape is littered with corpses by the end--and it's all slow-witted Jerry's fault. He makes Homer Simpson seem like a Nobel Prize winner.

The Coens' gift for acid portraiture goes a lot further than that. Every waitress, police sergeant and gum-chewing bimbo in Fargo has that barnyard look, and each of these amusing rustics speaks a language we sophisticates chortle at, delivered in a north country twang that makes us cringe. "Be there in a jiff, hon," each wife says to each husband. "Aw, jeez, thanks a bunch," each square-headed cop says to his partner. Not even the two soulless kidnappers-turned-killers--played by Swedish actor Gaear Grimsrud and perennial bad guy Steve Buscemi--escape the Coens' condescension. Even as they're mowing down highway patrolmen and parking lot attendants, there's something resolutely clumsy and uncool about them, too. The Coens may be back in Minne-SOH-tah, but they don't mind wearing out their welcome.

Happily, the brothers stop just short of disaster. The heroine of the piece--possibly the Coens' first-ever brush with heroism--is the pregnant police chief of little Brainerd, Minnesota ("Home of Paul Bunyan"), Marge Gunderson. As portrayed by the terrific Frances McDormand, Marge is the Columbo of the upper Midwest--a lumpy, plain-faced, fur-hatted drudge who's just as locked into the tedious routines of her life as everyone else in the movie, except for two things: She's a smart, dogged cop, and she's completely at peace with the rhythms of her life. If the Coens were tempted to give Marge Gunderson the same half-affectionate back-of-the-hand they give dumb Jerry and everyone else in the picture, they hesitated in time to save the drama and, presumably, to serve truth: Even while Marge is piling her plate high with mystery meat and mashed potatoes from the all-you-can-eat buffet, she's cannily stitching together the murder mystery that links a car salesman in Minneapolis with his missing wife and two dead cops in North Dakota. You don't often have anyone to root for in a Coen Brothers movie: You've got someone here.

In fact, I found myself rooting for the Coens, too. True crime and the freezing back roads of the upper Midwest may not always be their bailiwick, but the choices they've made here seem to have freshened their outlook and reinvigorated their work. I found Fargo screamingly funny (even the scene in which two killers watch Johnny Carson in a cheap motel room with a pair of hookers) as well as mysteriously moving (even the scene in which Marge Gunderson curls up in bed with her dull, almost-faceless husband and tells him that the nature watercolor he's submitted to the postal service will look great on a three-cent stamp). For its quirkiness, its wonderful collision of tones and its sheer competence, Fargo is the finest film I've seen in many months--despite its nastiness.

Jeez. What more can I tell, ya, hon? It's a lotta fun. Okey-dokey?

Fargo. Screenplay by Ethan and Joel Coen. Directed by Joel Coen. With William H. Macy, Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell and Peter Stormare.

 
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