Murder, She Said

Fargo gives us comedy, killing -- and an eight-month pregnant detective

On the flip side, we have Marge Gunderson. Lundegaard's plans may be going nowhere, but the pregnant chief chugs right along. Maybe she looks silly eating a tray full of cafeteria food and enjoying the cafeteria Muzak, but facts are what we need to follow. And the facts show that she's always on the case, even if she does look like a goober.

The telling and crucial aspects are dressed up with idiosyncratic Coen touches. Fargo doesn't take place in Fargo, or even North Dakota. Instead, it's set in Brainerd, Minnesota, deep in Paul Bunyan land, and Minneapolis/St. Paul. Fargo is just a cool name. And 1987, the stated year, is just a convenient year -- comfortably distant, and yet still familiar. The opening credits state that Fargo is a fact-based story, and that "out of respect for the dead E events are depicted as they happened," but that's all Coen brothers hooey. Those who look can find such fun all the way through. The closing credits, for instance, identify a "victim in field" with the symbol for the artist formerly known as Prince (altered with a smiley face mouth and eyes). The Coen brothers' gift for light comedy complements and enhances this complex and satisfying movie.

In this con-artist police procedural with funny sets and funnier situations, the Coens constantly contrast their story's realistic and cartoonish aspects -- and it's the cartoonish that turns out to be the nature of evil. Like the action in cartoons, the evil in Fargo is the product of poor planning, fast action and ego. The bad guys are as ludicrous as a sputtering Daffy Duck. This is an unconventional idea, because in most movies, people who kill people are shrewd and organized, or else lucky wildmen. The murders in Fargo are committed by funny, boozy losers. Yet the dead people are just as dead as anybody on the TV news. The Coens are about the only team going that can make that notion work, and in Fargo, they make it work to perfection.

Directed by Joel Coen. With Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi and William H. Macy. Rated R. 98 minutes.

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