FOR AIR 4/5/96

There's an urban legend that dates from Ballard's being a Scandinavian outpost in Seattle, which is that the high school cheer went Lutefisk, Lutefisk, Lefse, Lefse, Ballard Gonna Win Tonight, Ya Sure Ya Betcha.

Well, those irrepressible two Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, have made the classic Scandihoovian film, set in Minnesota during a bleak winter, called Fargo, for no other reason than that Fargo, which of course is in North Dakota, probably sounds better as a title than Brainerd, or the twin cities, which is actually where the film takes place. But be that as it may, Fargo is exciting and a lot of fun. It has all the good points of their earlier film Miller's Crossing, and almost none of the bad, by which I mean that it keeps moving, keeps revealing itself without stopping to admire what it's done so far, and is filled with unexpectedly bizarre flashes of wit.

The plot is simple. A man who runs a car dealership in Minneapolis for his wealthy father-in-law has gotten himself in deep doo-doo by cooking the books. His plan to get out of trouble is to hire two hoods to kidnap his wife and hold her for ransom, then get the money from his father-in-law, pay off the kidnappers, and get back on the straight and narrow.

But if you know the Coens' films, things never come out quite the way people want them to, particularly bad people. So things start going wrong, and soon a wonderful woman named Marge Gunderson, who is police chief of Brainerd, begins poking around. She's played by the pregnant Frances McDormand, who uses it beautifully ("Do you mind if I sit? I'm carryin' quite a load.") and she wears her fleece-lined, ear-flapped hat like a badge of honor.

While Marge is poking, the various bad guys begin going to pieces. Jerry Lundegaard, the husband, played by William H. Macy, is a portrait of a car salesman that keeps just this side of caricature. He is so slimy that I predict traffic in auto showrooms will drop twenty percent among people who've seen this movie.

Steve Buscemi overacts once again as the leading hood, but everyone else is fine. The Coens' script has some wonderful moments, and the pacing is better than it has been. Nothing in Fargo will come close to the apocalyptic ending of Barton Fink, which is one of the supreme moments in filmmaking, but then this is not a fantasy -- it's based on a true crime, and the Coens were wise to stay with it.

Two final notes. One is that if you watch the end credits carefully you will be reminded that you actually saw the artist formerly known as something or other, early in the film. The other is that Fargo will show you a whole new use for your garden shredder-chipper. Something only the Coens could think of. This is Bob Glatzer.