Wringing Humor From the Bizarre

Three movies revel in make-believe mayhem, but can they be mocking violence on screen?

IT isn't a new trend, but it's gained new momentum in recent weeks: Crime and suspense movies are taking a comic turn, tempering their wild and sometimes violent thrills with rueful laughter.

The jokes in these pictures may be aimed at characters, or at audiences, or at everyone on and off the screen. Current examples range from "Fargo" to "Bottle Rocket" and "The Young Poisoner's Handbook."

While there are no great lessons to be learned from this spate of sardonic thrillers, it suggests that filmmakers may be responding to concerns about cinematic violence not by reducing their body counts, but by reminding viewers that - as Alfred Hitchcock once famously remarked - even the most harrowing Hollywood scenes are only movie make-believe at heart.

Some spectators may be comforted by this message. Others will find it little consolation at a time when this particular kind of make-believe seems to be crowding other varieties out of the theaters.

If the newest member of the group is in some ways the strongest, it's because "Fargo" was dreamed up by two filmmakers who've made this genre their own for more than a decade, starting with the aptly named "Blood Simple," their 1985 debut film.

Returning to the horror-comic vein that launched their careers, director Joel Coen and producer Ethan Coen pepper their new picture with so much humor that the occasional bursts of sheer mayhem seem more ridiculous than revolting.

Based on a real event, "Fargo" takes place in a Minnesota town where small-time businessman Jerry Lundegaard has put together the sweetest investment deal of his career - and also the biggest disaster, since he can't raise the money to put his scheme in motion.

Meeting with two crooks-for-hire in wintry North Dakota, he arranges for his own wife to be kidnapped, whereupon he'll use her father's ransom money to finance his deal. Not surprisingly, everything imaginable goes wrong with his plan, resulting in more chaos and corpses than Jerry knows how to cope with.

The most effective humor in "Fargo" is aimed at the stupidity of Jerry's greed and the out-and-out thuggishness of his accomplices.

The movie is less agreeable when it pokes excessive fun at more innocent targets, and there's something mean-spirited about its smirking jibes at unsophisticated townspeople with broad Midwestern accents.

Some viewers may also question the film's readiness to reduce the dignity of its female characters, but here I think the Coens are actually criticizing a trait of movie thrillers that they themselves find offensive. It's true that one early scene invites us to laugh at a woman running for her life with a shower curtain covering her eyes. Yet a later scene shows a mush-minded criminal guffawing at a very similar sight, stripping away the humor of the situation and suggesting that such a spectacle is no laughing matter.

Some viewers may not draw the connection between these moments, and even if they do, they may feel its message is too slim to justify the dubious slapstick involved.

It's encouraging to see that the Coens are willing to put a little thought into such matters, though, lending some depth to a picture that might otherwise seem no deeper than the ankle-deep snow that blankets much of the movie's scenery.

William H. Macy is excellent as the misguided mastermind, and Frances MacDormand is lots of fun as the pregnant policewoman who cracks the case. The inimitable Steve Buscemi plays a criminal who meets a grisly end, and Harve Presnell returns to the screen as the kidnap victim's wealthy father. Roger Deakins, a frequent Coen collaborator, did the frosty cinematography.

Of the season's other comic thrillers, "Bottle Rocket" is the cleverest and funniest. The protagonists are three unbelievably dull Texas men who decide to form a gang and enter a life of criminal adventure - which makes them no less boring than they were before, but gives them many new situations to be listless and tedious in.

This may sound like a one-joke movie, but it benefits from the witty directing of newcomer Wes Anderson and slyly understated acting by several highly promising talents - plus some who've shown their abilities in the past, including James Caan, and Lumi Cavazos of "Like Water for Chocolate" fame.

Anderson wrote the screenplay with Owen C. Wilson.

"The Young Poisoner's Handbook" is as queasy as it is comical, and while "Fargo" has its share of sheer grisliness, this British production is even more flamboyant in its refusal to take murder and mayhem with complete seriousness.

Again based on a true story, it centers on an extraordinarily bright British boy whose enthusiasm for chemistry leads to a fascination with perilous potions and poisons, which he proceeds to try out on family members and friends.

Directed by Ben Ross, the picture makes implicit comments on many important issues, such as the reliability of psychiatry as a predictor of behavior and (another Hitchcockian theme) the possibility that feckless evil, if not confronted, can lurk in the most apparently "normal" of households. Still, moviegoers valuing standards of good taste should steer far away from it.

*"Fargo," rated R, contains sex and vulgar language as well as much violence.

"Bottle Rocket" also has an R rating, reflecting milder violence and some rough language.

"The Young Poisoner's Handbook" has not been rated, but contains harrowing scenes of violence and illness.

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