Like everyone else, I have an “overrated movies” list. And if I had to make a top 20, Fargo would make it onto that list, easily.
I didn’t want it to be overrated. You see, back in the day, I was kinda sorta a Coen brothers fan. I adored Raising Arizona because of how quirky it was, and though I didn’t really love their other movies as much as that film, there was still a quirky charm that I always appreciated about their work. So with Fargo, I expected a movie that I probably wasn’t going to love wholeheartedly but would adore for the typical Coen brothers sensibility.
Instead, I came across a film that couldn’t have been less like a Coen brothers movie. Worse yet, it didn’t even come close to living up to all the acclaim it’s generated over the years, not by a long shot. Below are the reasons why:
It’s a One Joke Movie
I’m not from the Midwest and admittedly, I don’t know all that much about it outside of stuff like Prairie Hometown Companion and shows and movies that reference it. But based on what I’ve seen, I’m aware that in that region, there’s ethnic humor that makes fun of people who are supposed to be like the “Dumb Polack” stereotype, except they’re of Scandinavian heritage and dey tawk real funny, yah? Kinda like dem dere guys from dat, ya know, da SCTV show now, yah know, da, uh, Doug and Bob McKenzie, yah, who aren’t frum dere but dey got dose accents, too, yah? ‘Xcept dey say “eh” instead of “yah.”
There’s even a whole genre of jokes based on the dumb Scandinavian stereotype called “Ole and Lena” (sometimes “Olaf and Lena” or “Ollie and Lena”). Ole and Lena are two characters who are kind of like the Amos and Andy of the Midwest, except they’re a man and a woman instead of two guys.
I can only assume that it was these jokes that were the basis of the “Back in St. Olaf” running gag on the Golden Girls, where Rose Nylund would tell jokes about her hometown in Minnesota, which was full of Ole and Lena types who would say and do the stupidest things.
Anyway, in watching Fargo, I didn’t get what the point was of having everyone tawk like dis. Like, okay, I get it–some people in the Midwest have this accent but why go so over the top with it, where it’s so thick and practically every character except the two out of towners have it? And then it hit me: “Hey, wait a minute. This is basically a very long, one joke movie version of “Back in St. Olaf,” where the joke is that we get to laugh at how these very dumb, naive, provincial Oles and Lenas of Fargo handle a huge crime wave hitting their town.
There’s nothing wrong with ethnic humor as long as it’s witty, funny and good-natured. Unfortunately, in Fargo, what passes for ethnic humor is the worst kind, where the whole point is to go, “Hahaha, these people talk different and they have funny, weird names. And they look and sound stupid, too. Let’s laugh at how dorky and weird they all are and revel in our coolness!”
I know that some people will say, “Well, no. The thing about the ethnic humor in Fargo is that it’s a setup to a clever punchline–that the head ‘Lena’ (Marge Gunderson) outsmarts the dirtbag city slickers who we’re supposed to identify with because they’re so hip and cool. See, the point is to get us to all laugh at the Oles and Lenas in the beginning, think they’re stupid, and then realize that they’re smart.”
Maybe. But even if the whole point of that joke was to show how smart the Oles and Lenas are, that doesn’t make it any more clever or interesting. It still makes Fargo a one joke film but with a different punchline. It also makes the joke patronizing, which is as bad as being mocking, in my opinion.
It’s a Bad Quentin Tarantino Movie
Some people will be outraged at the idea of accusing the Coens of trying to ape Quentin Tarantino. After all, the Coens had a long, established career of making brilliant, one of a kind movies all their own. Tarantino was just another young turk who came on the scene long after they had broken out. Why on earth would such established A-Listers stoop so low as to imitate some punk video store clerk who got lucky with Pulp Fiction?
Well, here’s the thing. You can hate Tarantino all you want. Call him a punk, a hack, a one trick pony, a jerk, a creep, whatever you want. Take a picture of his face, throw darts at it and draw a mustache on it. But no matter what you think of Tarantino, Pulp Fiction was the single most influential movie of the 1990s next to Silence of the Lambs. When that movie became a smash, filmmakers were chomping at the bit to do a hip crime comedy in the same vein. Even longtime directors like Barry Sonnenfeld rushed to produce a Pulp Fiction of their own.
Given that, I have no qualms about saying that the Coens were probably trying to put out a Pulp Fiction-esque film. All the elements are there–the hip, cool criminals, the equally hip dialogue, the black humor and the gritty violence. But it. Just. Doesn’t. Work.
The reason why it doesn’t work is that the Coens didn’t get Tarantino. They saw the dark humor of Pulp Fiction and thought, “Let’s make Fargo mean-spirited.” They saw Tarantino making the audiences root for the criminals and said, “Let’s not only make our audiences identify with these evil kidnappers but identify with their depravity, too.” They saw shocking violence and thought, “Let’s make the violence sadistic.” In a nutshell, they made the type of mean, nasty, sadistic movie that everyone always falsely accuses of Tarantino of making.
If I had to pick two moments in which it was clear that Fargo was a misfired attempt at mimicking Tarantino, it would have to be the infamous wood chipper scene and the backyard scene in which the two kidnappers laugh at their victim as they watch her stumble blindly into obstacles in their backyard.
On the surface, these two scenes look like something that could’ve come out of a Quentin Tarantino movie. But if you’re familiar with Tarantino’s work, you know that though he wants viewers to identify with immoral people as protagonists, he never encourages viewers to identify with them as they’re committing evil. There was never one moment in Pulp Fiction when, as much as you loved Samuel L. Jackson’s character, you felt an affinity with him as a murderer. If anything, the movie forced you to experience his violent acts from the position of his victims so that as much as you liked him, you were terrified of him.
Also, although Tarantino has always injected dark humor in his movies regarding terrible situations, the situations themselves are never played for laughs. Having Tarantino’s character in Pulp Fiction rant about “Dead N***** Storage” wasn’t to laugh over the fact that a black character had been killed in the previous scene. It was the phrase itself, as well as his delivery when he said it, that made it funny.
Lastly, the violence in Tarantino’s movies may be shocking, but the most graphic scenes are always so over the top and stylized to the point where it loses whatever sadistic quality it might’ve had if he had played it completely straight.
Would Tarantino ever in his movies have the audiences actually being put in the position of laughing along with sociopaths as they’re torturing and laughing at their victim like the Coens did in that backyard scene in Fargo? Have something as sadistic as someone being run through a wood chipper? Show people being gunned down at point blank range over and over and over again in a very cold, detached manner? Of course not. But this is what people always think that he does, and apparently, this is all the Coens got out of Pulp Fiction. What resulted was a very nasty, mean-spirited film that was uncomfortable to sit through and left a bitter taste in the mouth even though the good guys prevail in the end.
One Joke Movie + Bad Pulp Fiction Knockoff=Bleh
I know that people hate the term, “overrated,” but I’m sorry–to me, Fargo is definitely one of those films where the title is deserved. It’s a one joke movie that got way too much acclaim because of who directed it, and also because it came out at a time when any hip crime comedy was automatically seen as cool. To this day, I still don’t understand why it’s considered some kind of classic, and I don’t think I ever will.