Top 10 comedy films – an alternative list
No. 8 – Fargo

After a brief two-year interlude, the alternative list of comedy film classics resumes.[i]

Number 8 is not a straight comedy, and not one of the Coen Brothers films routinely celebrated as their best comic work, but as someone who’s never been convinced by either The Big Lebowski or Raising Arizona I’m plumping for Fargo, a film which I enjoyed more than either of those and which does more interesting things with comedy.

One reason to nominate Fargo is its influence on subsequent films and in particular television series (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, the Fargo series). It pioneered a mix of comedy and often violent drama, where the tone of the comic scenes differs only minimally from the more serious and sometime shocking moments.

The other striking feature is the range of comic devices it uses. Chief among these are the Minnesota nice accent 

and the increasingly brutal range of misfortunes which befall Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi, in the quintessential Steve Buscemi role), from dealing with an uncommunicative partner in crime and an overly-officious car park attendant to beatings, being shot  and worse.

The most interesting comic feature of the film is Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand). She is the hero and clearly the smartest person on show, but at same time she’s an innocent, a hick and in some respects a comic figure. It wouldn’t be quite fair to say that the film makes fun of her, but it has fun with her good-naturedness, and with the fact that she outwits every other character, no matter how cynical they may be. This is most clearly demonstrated in the lecture she delivers to Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare):

There are no funny lines in this scene, and Marge’s homily does not come across as ridiculous: everything she says is correct, and true to her vision of the world. It just sounds funny when delivered to a man she had a short while ago found stuffing his former accomplice into a wood chipper. By placing her homespun wisdom in that context, but in no other way undermining it, the Coen Brothers manage to have their cake and eat it too.

[i] An alternative to the Guardian’s list from a few years back.


  1. Agree with everything you say about the film, but I think you're underestimating how well received it was, e.g. I stumbled across the following (and this pair's reviews are often worth a look):

  2. That's a good point. I hadn't meant to suggest that it wasn't well-received (as I recall, it got positive notices pretty much across the board), but rather that even people who liked it a lot didn't seem to find it as funny as other Coen Brothers films. (On a related note, it's interesting that while Gene Siskel chooses Frago as the best film of 1996 in the video to which you linked, he describes Kingpin as the year's funniest film. And I can see how that makes sense: if you like Kingpin (it's been a while since I've seen it, but I don't recall liking it very much), chances are you will laugh at it more than you will laugh during Fargo.)

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