Fargo (1996)

Dir. Joel Coen

Written by: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Starring: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare


It’s been a while since I’ve written about a Coen Brothers movie for this project, and getting to another one feels a bit like finding an oasis in the middle of a desert. Certainly not because the quality of the films that I’ve been watching and writing about since I wrote about The Big Lebowski has been lacking, but because there is something comforting to me about immersing myself in the offbeat world in which these sibling auteurs choose to set their films. From an early age, I can remember the movies of the Coen Brothers being a background figure in my upbringing. Both of my parents had loved Raising Arizona and would regularly reference and quote the movie when I was young, though I don’t remember actually watching that movie until I was a little older. Instead, like many, Fargo was my introduction to the Coen Brothers. My parents rented the video when I was about 11, and I was allowed to stay up and watch the movie with them on a weekend night. I thought the Midwestern accents in the movie were hysterical, and even though I didn’t really understand it at the time, I sensed a darkness and a weirdness that existed on the fringes. Over the years, the movie would become an absolute favorite, and I would return to it time and time again. Fargo is still a favorite, and I think the older I get, the more I appreciate the film’s tale of small-time grift and murder born out of desperation, and its black sense of humor.

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Fargo begins with Jerry Lundegaard (Macy), a sales manager at an Oldsmobile dealership who has gotten in over his head in a bad financing scheme, meeting with Gaer Grimsrud (Stormare) and Carl Showalter (Buscemi) at a bar in Fargo, North Dakota. Jerry has hatched a plan to hire Gaer and Carl to kidnap his wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrud), and then extort a ransom out of his wealthy father-in-law, Wade (Harve Presnell). He plans to tell Wade that the ransom is $1,000,000, of which he will pay Carl and Gaer $80,000 and keep the rest to cover his debts and give him seed money for a new investment. Though Jerry begins to have second thoughts, the kidnapping takes place, and while the kidnappers are transporting Jean to their hideout to await the ransom, they are stopped by a state trooper. Gaer kills the state trooper, and later kills two witnesses who see him and Carl trying to hide the trooper’s body. The sloppy triple homicide obviously alerts the attention of the local police department, and Chief Margie Gunderson (McDormand) of Brainerd, Minnesota, takes the case. Margie’s initial investigation leads her to the discovery that the murdered trooper was ticketing a car with dealer plates, which eventually leads her investigation all the way to Jerry’s dealership in Minneapolis. What was supposed to be a simple staged kidnapping has spawned multiple homicides, and Jerry and Carl struggle to keep the lid on their scheme while Margie comes closer and closer to uncovering the truth and the connection between Jean’s kidnapping and the subsequent murders.

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As I mentioned, Fargo is a movie that I grew up with, and in many ways, grew into. I think that it’s a perfect movie to introduce someone to the Coen Brothers, especially if they’re young. There are a couple of brief sex scenes, and a few instances of pretty graphic violence, but depending on a kid’s maturity level, there shouldn’t be anything too objectionable in Fargo, and even though it’s a darkly themed film, its sinister core is coated in a quirky, quaint veneer. When I was young, the overstated Midwestern accents and mannerisms of the characters were all I really picked up on in the film, but they stuck with me, making me want to rewatch the movie where they talked about the Golden Gophers and said, “Oh, you betcha!” There was something about the specificity of the movie that spoke to me, and, as I’ve written previously, the Coens are masters at nailing the specific feeling of a time or a place. Each of their films, though often set in wildly disparate universes, feels genuinely rooted in this sense of time and place, and Fargo is no exception. From the film’s outset, with its opening shots of Jerry Lundegaard driving across the snow-swept tundra of North Dakota in a stolen car to meet up with the men he will hire to kidnap his wife, there is no mistaking the setting for anywhere but the upper Midwest. When I was young, I latched onto this aesthetic. I know I didn’t see it more than once or twice on television in the intervening years between first seeing it when it was new and purchasing the movie on DVD several years later as a teenager, but I can distinctly remember being enamored with the hermetically sealed, snow globe world of Fargo.

When I got older, I went back to Fargo and I was surprised at the depth of the movie that I mostly remembered for its cartoonish depictions of Minnesota niceties and the coldness of its mise-en-scene. I found that the coldness of its setting was reflective of the cold brutality with which the characters treat one another in the movie. I had understood the movie’s plot when I was younger, of course, but I don’t think that I had quite picked up on the callousness behind much of it. When I initially watched the film, I think I viewed Jean’s kidnapping as a farcical flawed caper, rather than the horrifying act of desperation that it really is. Being young, I didn’t really understand the deep, adult nature of Jerry’s selfish desperation, or his willingness to sacrifice everything in a misguided effort to rectify his earlier financial blunders. William H. Macy would make his name playing these types of characters, down on their luck losers who emit a palpable air of sadness and shame, but Jerry Lundegaard still stands out as one of his best performances. Macy’s hangdog expression and “aw shucks,” line delivery are perfect here, as is the nervous energy that he plays Jerry with. It’s a backhanded compliment to say that Macy might be the best actor in Hollywood at playing a weasel, but he nails that quality of Jerry perfectly. Until he made the fateful decision to hire men to kidnap his wife, Jerry was simply a parasitic, small man, desperate for a little success and recognition, who got in a little over his head and made poor decisions. Unfortunately, as a result of those decisions, bodies start piling up like snow in January.

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Another major thing that I never picked up on in Fargo is the film’s moments of immense strangeness. When I returned to the movie in my late teens, I noticed a distinct, almost Lynchian, undertone of surreality throughout the film. This plays out most regularly in the odd, clipped manner of conversation that the Coens employ often. Several times characters engage in brief conversations that seem to begin or end abruptly, or interject phrases that seem oddly out of place. When Margie is interviewing the two call girls who slept with Carl and Gaer, one of the women blurts out her high school and gives a small cheer when Margie asks her where she’s from. It’s a funny line that could easily be chalked up to the film’s specificity and the cultural pride of the Midwest, but it’s also a moment of dark absurdity. The interjection has no place in a murder investigation, and it marks a moment of darkness bubbling up from underneath the tranquil surface of small town Middle American normalcy.

Another moment in the film that has come to strike me as incredibly odd is Margie’s dinner with her former classmate, Mike Yanagita (Steve Park). They meet for lunch in Minneapolis while Margie is in town working her case, and before they’ve even had a chance to eat their meal, Mike breaks down, confessing that he’s always loved Margie and that his wife has recently died of leukemia. Only later does she find out that Mike’s wife was not dead, and in fact was never his wife, instead Mike had stalked their former classmate. Margie reflects on this information, as she had clearly pitied Mike during his breakdown, and the audience is also forced to view Mike’s previous pathetic desperation as a sinister attempt at manipulation. The interactions have always struck me as affected, and the nature of the revelation of Mike’s stalking and lying has always felt a bit out of place in the film. The scene is largely tangential to the rest of the plot, but it serves to reinforce the premise that there is a sinister sort of perversity underlying some of the character’s seemingly upstanding nature. I suppose that I connect these moments of ancillary strangeness with Lynch because I think that he explores very similar themes in Blue Velvet. Just like he explores the darkness underlying small town America in that film, in Fargo, the Coens explore the neuroses and sinister urges that can propel even the most normal seeming people.

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Of course, there is one character in the film who seems to be truly guided by noble principles, and that is Chief Margie Gusterson. Frances McDormand won an Academy Award for her performance as the pregnant police chief, and I think that this role still stands out as her signature role among a deep body of work. I’ve written before that McDormand is one of my favorite working actors, and my affinity for her work began with seeing Fargo for the first time. McDormand is the source of much of the film’s humor, playing Margie with a natural sense of bemusement that helps the audience identify with her as a character. However she also gets to be strong and tough, giving Margie an innate knack for police work and investigation, while the other cops in the movie are shown to be bumbling and inadequate. More than anything, though, McDormand imbues Margie with a sense of goodness that shines through in spite of the ugly circumstances that the character finds herself in. This basic decency and goodness makes Margie a great foil for the sleazy and selfish characters, such as Carl and Jerry, who people Fargo. Her performance is the light at the end of a tunnel, a reassurance of the basic decency that drives most people.

The rest of the film’s performances are top notch, as well. The film’s characters are often paired against one another, and the casting is spot on. Harve Presnell is an apt foil for Macy’s Jerry. Where Jerry is timid and soft-spoken, Wade is bold and bellicose, and successful, to boot. Presnell is a perfect angry old man, and he delivers some great, memorable lines when he’s criticizing Jean and Jerry’s parenting. Buscemi and Stormare form a perfect pair, with Buscemi’s garrulous, frenzied acting style providing a complement for Stormare’s laconic, stoic delivery. The Coens also perfectly pit these characters against one another, utilizing Stormare’s physicality to turn Gaer into a classicly hulking villain, while Carl’s impatience and irritability come out in Buscemi’s characteristic verbal patter and his jittery screen presence. Both actors get their moments of comedy as well, with Stormare employing expert timing and a wry sense of humor to deliver blasé punch lines, while Buscemi adopts a more physical, frenzied comedy that plays like a very dark slapstick. John Lynch turns in an understated supporting performance as Norm, Margie’s devoted, loving husband. He and McDormand share several moments of genuine tenderness, and their relationship, and glowing anticipation of their unborn child, give the film its emotional heart. The two actors share an easy chemistry, helping to ground the otherwise chaotic, spiraling narrative of the film. It’s fitting that the film ends on a bedroom conversation between Norm and Margie, as it feels like their love is the good thing that is worth saving from the avaricious ambitions of Jerry, Carl, and Gaer.

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I’m sure it’s obvious that I’m a huge fan of Fargo. It’s been one of the most consistent movies in my life, and I still return to it every couple of years, or so. One of the things that I’ve learned from working on this project is that any attempt to rank or order favorite movies, particularly within the body of work of my favorite filmmakers, isn’t really an exercise that I’m interested in. I’ve hung onto these movies, for the most part, because on any given day they could find themselves mentioned among my favorites of all time. Some, like Fargo, would find themselves in that discussion with more credence and more regularity than others. It’s accepted as a masterpiece, and I think many people would rank it as the Coen Brothers’ best film, which I wouldn’t have much quibble with. The movie’s reputation as a classic is well-earned, given the strength of its performances, its perfect balance of humor and suspenseful intrigue, and its iconic and memorable visual imagery. I know that many of the movies that I champion on this site are often somewhat esoteric, but Fargo is honestly a movie with something for everyone. It can be appreciated on many different levels, and it satisfies so many different things that I would want out of a go-to comfort movie. I can put it on in the background when I’m doing chores around the house, or I can sit down and watch it intently, appreciating its perfectly crafted script, and Roger Deakins’s coldly beautiful cinematography. It’s a movie that even though I’ve seen it over a dozen times, I never tire of going back for a repeat viewing. Chances are if you can’t find something to love about Fargo, you don’t really like movies at all.


Blood Simple

Blood Simple (1984)

Dir. Joel Coen

Written by: Joel & Ethan Coen

Starring: Frances McDormand, John Getz, Dan Hedaya, Samm-Art Williams, M. Emmet Walsh


I’ve written before about the breadth and depth of Coen Brothers’ filmography. Blood Simple is a perfect example of that depth. Their debut film, it serves as an artistic statement that would define the scope of their career. It finds the brothers arriving on the cinematic scene, nearly fully formed. Though later works would achieve more popularity or prestige, Blood Simple stands out as one of the great debuts in all of film, resembling more the work of an established filmmaker at the height of his or her powers than the first offering from a couple of neophytes. It establishes their interest in genre filmmaking, and many of their trademark cinematic devices appear in the film, at least in rudimentary forms. Far from serving as a still-developing sketch, or an indicator of potential artistry, Blood Simple is a fully formed near-masterpiece in its own right. It’s a dark tale of murder, adultery, and deception set against the backdrop of the Texas desert that winds itself up to a frenzy by the third act and maintains a breakneck pace towards disaster. An unyielding thriller that can keep an audience on the edge of their seat for the duration, the film stands up among the best work that the Coen Brothers have done in their long and fruitful career, despite still being somewhat underseen when compared to their more popular works.

The film opens with Ray (Getz) and Abby (McDormand) driving down a Texas highway at night. Their conversation concerns Abby’s failing marriage to Marty (Hedaya), who also happens to own the bar that Ray works at. Though their stated destination is Houston, the two pull into a motel and spend the night. Marty, suspecting their affair, has hired a private investigator, Loren Visser, (Walsh) to follow them, and he snaps a few photos of them in their hotel room as proof of the affair. When he provides this proof to Marty, the detective implies that for the right price he’d be willing to eliminate Marty’s problem, though Marty initially turns him down. Eventually, though, Marty seeks out Visser, hiring him to kill both Ray and Abby for $10,000. Rather than go through with the hit, Visser breaks into Ray’s home and steals Abby’s gun, then takes photos of them sleeping again. He returns to Marty with doctored photos, depicting the sleeping couple as corpses riddled with bullet holes, and after receiving his payment he double-crosses Marty, shooting him in the chest with Abby’s gun and leaving him to bleed out. Later, Ray returns to the bar to find an unresponsive Marty and Abby’s gun. Thinking that she has killed Marty, he decides to cover up the murder. The ensuing cover up leads to miscommunications between Ray and Abby, with each thinking that the other is responsible for the killing of Marty, while Visser engages in a deadly pursuit of the couple, hoping to erase any link to his crime.

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Blood Simple is a master class in economical storytelling. At its core, it’s a straightforward revenge story, and even as its narrative gets more complex with the added double-crosses and misunderstandings, it doesn’t lose any focus or narrative momentum. The film essentially has only five characters, the previously mentioned four, plus Meurice (Williams), the other bartender at Marty’s bar, who finds himself tangentially caught up in the murder plot. Largely though, the film revolves around the principals in the love triangle and the murderous Visser, as they play out a savage game of cat and mouse in the Texas back country. With a few notable exceptions, the Coens eschew narrative ambiguity or overarching mystery as drivers of tension in the film, instead letting the audience in on all of the details of the story. Watching the characters make questionable decisions and wrong assumptions about one another heightens the tension for the audience, as the spectators are able to see the Greek tragedy unfolding in front of them, even as the characters are blind to their surroundings. In fact, the title comes from a turn of phrase in which someone is said to be “blood simple” after being rendered incapable of higher thought or decision making in the face of violent surroundings. The film makes the viewer want to reach through the screen and shake Ray and Abby, warning them of the impending doom that’s closing in.

The Coens also heighten narrative tension through the film’s masterful appropriation of classical noir visual style. The Coens have transported their crime drama from its usual urban setting to the middle of nowhere in the Texas desert, but they otherwise retain many of the stylistic cues of the genre. Aside from a few sunbaked exteriors, the film is dark, scenes often employing contrasting chiaroscuro lighting. Shadows are extreme, with characters’ faces often partially or totally obscured by darkness as they issue straightforward, hardboiled dialogue. There is more than enough visual information in the frame to make up for the paucity of verbal context. The shadows reflect both the dubious nature of the characters’ morality, and their duality. In this film, there are no true heroes; everyone is kissed by darkness in some way. Borrowing a trick from Sergio Leone, the Coens frame their characters in claustrophobic close-up, highlighting every pore and bead of sweat. At times, lazy flies are allowed to buzz in and out of the frame, crawling along Visser’s brow while he meets with Marty to discuss their dirty deals. To say the film is atmospheric would be an understatement, as its mise-en-scene does more than suggest the seediness of its environs, it insists upon the palpability of the griminess of this universe. At times, the desperation practically leaps from the screen.

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In addition to successfully adapting the tropes of the noir film, the Coens begin to establish their own unique visual and narrative style in Blood Simple. The slow burning tension of later films like Fargo and No Country For Old Men is on display here, with the brothers already proving to be masters of pace and timing. The film’s first two acts are languorously paced. Scenes of dialogue are allowed to play out slowly, either unexpectedly erupting into acts of violence, or, rather, expected violence is denied. The Coens punctuate their shot/reverse shot with stylish tracking shots and rapid zooms that force the viewer to take notice. The final third of the film boils over with tension as Visser closes in on Abby and Ray, stalking them through her apartment. The characters have all gotten on a runaway train, and they’re forced to pursue the ride to its logical end. The violence in the film, as in most of the brothers’ later films, is matter-of-fact, an unfortunate consequence of the corrupted world in which these characters live. It seems that the Coens enjoy spinning yarns about everyday people who find themselves embroiled in larger schemes, and the roots of that narrative preoccupation are in Blood Simple.

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The performances in the film are all top notch, with the Coens already showing a deft hand at directing actors. In what was her first ever film role, McDormand is perfect as Abby. Her performance gives the character just enough subtle edge to keep her true nature in the dark until the film’s end. It’s hinted that Abby might be some sort of femme fatale, but her actual level of duplicity is hard to pin down. She’s a woman torn between a man she loves and one she fears, but McDormand never plays her as a dependent. She has steely resolve, and agency, that grows to a lethal capacity in the film’s final showdown with Visser. She’s able to balance manic outbursts of emotion and quietly determined acts of violence, and remain convincing in both circumstances. Neither Getz nor Hedaya are given much dialogue to work with, but they embody both of their roles with a lived-in physicality. Hedaya’s Marty haunts most of the film as a dead or dying presence, his body often visible on the edges of the frame as a reminder of the murder that has embroiled all of these characters. Getz plays Ray as a working stiff who’s simply in over his head, but his workmanlike approach belies a darker side to the character. When it comes time to dispose of Marty’s body, Ray drives him out to the desert where he finds out that Marty is mortally wounded, but not dead yet. He proceeds to bury him alive in a harrowing, slowly-paced scene that escalates the stakes and the tension in the film. There is no dialogue, but both actors give memorable performances, with Hedaya struggling mightily to stay alive while Getz slowly, steadily shovels dirt into his face.

It’s Walsh, however, who steals the film with his unhinged portrayal of the sleazy detective, Visser. Unlike the other characters in the film, there is little duality to Visser. Walsh plays him as purely evil, and in fact, he seems to enjoy and revel in his impurity. He breathes malice and corruption into his words, and his physical performance is palpably slimy. Visser seems to ooze into locked apartments, snapping his covert photographs and stealing bits of evidence, his stealth belied by the actor’s large stature. When it is time for him to pursue his quarry in earnest, Walsh plays Visser as a ruthless, efficient hunter, stalking Abby through her apartment until she is finally able to get the drop on him. Walsh’s performance is similar to John Goodman’s performance as Charlie Mundt in Barton Fink. Both characters come to symbolize evil incarnate in their filmic worlds, but unlike Mundt, Visser is rotten to the core. Where Goodman’s good-natured charm shines through some of Mundt’s cracks, Walsh never allows any light to permeate Visser’s dark patina. Even his humor is black as the Texas asphalt over which he tracks Ray and Abby.

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In lesser hands, a movie like Blood Simple might add up to just another paint-by-numbers pot boiler. The familiar elements are all present here: a spurned lover spurred to murderous rage, cases of double-cross and mistaken identity, a Chekhov’s gun which fulfills its narrative promise. However, the Coens routinely elevate basic subject matter and genre filmmaking to the level of complex, high art, and that streak is begun with their debut. They take a very straightforward story in Blood Simple and filter it through excellently realized character work and impeccable visual style to produce an end result that is engaging and visionary. Most of their films are genre experiments, but rarely are they as pure as Blood Simple. The film sets out to deliver a compelling tale of murder and do it in a suspenseful manner, despite removing narrative ambiguity, and it succeeds entirely. Like the characters in the film, once things start to break bad, the audience is simply along for the ride, hoping to survive to the end. When that end arrives, the audience has been taken on a sickening ride that explores the depths of moral depravity and human capacity for malice. Many of the Coen Brothers’ narrative and stylistic obsessions are on display here, so it is a must watch for any fan of their corpus, as well as any fan of well-realized suspense and crime films.

Almost Famous

Almost Famous (2000)

Dir. Cameron Crowe

Written by: Cameron Crowe

Starring: Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, Billy Crudup, Jason Lee, Frances McDormand


I was introduced to Almost Famous at exactly the perfect time in my life. I was a sophomore in high school when the girl who would go on to be one of my first serious girlfriends showed me this movie for the first time. It must have been 2001 or early 2002 when we watched this on DVD in the basement of my parents’ house. We made out through a lot of the movie so my memories of that first viewing are fond, if incomplete. We were 16 years old and Cameron Crowe’s love letter to 70’s rock and his own adolescence seemed awfully relatable at the time. Based on Crowe’s real life touring with groups like The Allman Brothers and The Who while he was a teenage writer for Rolling Stone, Almost Famous seemed like it had been made specifically for me. I played in several bands with friends throughout middle school and high school, none of which ever got off the ground or lasted much longer than six months. Almost Famous was just the sort of rock and roll fantasy that a teenage music nerd such as myself would fall in love with.

Crowe’s stand in in the film is William Miller (Fugit), a 15 year old aspiring rock journalist living in San Diego with his over protective mother (McDormand). Early in the film, William meets his idol Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman in a brief, but great cameo) who gives him his first opportunity to write for a real rock magazine, covering a Black Sabbath show. When William can’t get into the venue despite his press credentials, he meets Penny Lane (Hudson) a groupie who sneaks him backstage, and introduces him to the band Stillwater. After conning his way into covering up-and-coming band Stillwater for Rolling Stone, William hits the road along with Penny and the band. While on tour, he falls in love, witnesses the interpersonal conflicts of a band that he admires, and experiences the excesses of the 1970s rock scene.


The thing that Almost Famous does so wonderfully is establish a sense of place and time. The film’s soundtrack is crammed with 70s rock classics. The costumes and set dressing are period appropriate. However, the 1970s that Almost Famous evokes is a fun-house mirror reflection where the freaks and the burnouts are kings. The crowded hotel lobbies that William must navigate on tour are full of rock stars and their hangers on, all ready to follow their favorite group to the next tour stop, hoping to delay the onset of reality for just a few more shows. As a journalist, William’s role is to document the bacchanal but, like the audience, he can’t help but find himself wrapped up in it. Like the film itself, the world of the tour is immersive, and many of the film’s characters are happy never to leave it, following one band, then another, never wanting to return home.

The realism of Almost Famous is also bolstered by its deep and talented cast. Crowe has said that nearly everyone in the film is based on a real person that he knew in the 70s rock scene, and it shows. Even characters with just a few scenes are memorable, and fully fleshed out. I already mentioned the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cameo as Lester Bangs, but in just about ten minutes of screen time, Hoffman turns in one of his best performances as the “uncool” rock critic who William so admires. Hoffman’s performance shows the chain smoking, mustachioed Bangs in turns manic and enthusiastic about rock and roll, and cynical about it, forecasting its death. Hoffman elevates what could have been a bit part into one of the more memorable elements of the film thanks to his nuanced, subtle performance. Performances like this abound in Almost Famous. Frances McDormand stands out as Elaine Miller, William’s mother, even though most of her scenes are phone conversations. Often without anyone else on screen to play off of, the concern and anxiety that her character is feeling are palpable. Crowe inserts a few shots of McDormand sitting alone after her phone conversations with William that are simply heartbreaking. The mother character could have been shrewish, or used mostly for comic relief, as is sometimes the case in the film, but the emotion that McDormand puts into her performance made me take notice of her character in particular on this rewatch.


The film’s main cast is also deserving of commendation, particularly Billy Crudup and Jason Lee as Russell Hammond and Jeff Bebe, respectively. They play the guitarist and lead singer of Sweetwater, whose creativity and frequent personal clashes fuel the band. Crudup plays Hammond as equal parts con man, mystic, and rock god. He takes William under his wing during the tour, but steadfastly refuses to give him an interview for his story. As the film goes on, Russell and William develop a friendly rivalry over their mutual admiration of Penny Lane. Lee’s Jeff Bebe describes himself to Hammond as, “the you they get when they can’t get you,” underlining the tensions between the two as Jeff chafes at his second banana role to Russell. Both actors turn up their lothario charm for their roles, but they play the rockers in different ways. As mentioned, Crudup plays Russell as some sort of mystic, tapped in to a spiritual connection with the music that he makes so much that he can’t relate to average people. He can go from charming warmth to drug-fueled rage at a coin flip, and Crudup is convincing in both modes. Lee, on the other hand, plays Bebe as an affable, if bristly, uncle to William. He keeps the journalist at arm’s length, referring to him as “the enemy,” but is ultimately far more forthcoming than the seemingly more affectionate Hammond. As the group’s lead singer, Bebe’s personality is more outwardly engaging, and Lee’s upbeat performance style is perfect for that.

It’s unfortunate, but understandable, that the teen actors cast in the film’s leads don’t quite live up to the high bar set by their older counterparts. Patrick Fugit is passable as William, though there doesn’t seem to be a lot of acting for him to do. On the surface, his character learns and grows quite a bit from the beginning of the film to the end, but his performance rarely reflects this. Fugit does a fine job of embodying William’s starry-eyed demeanor at getting to spend time among his idols, but when the film asks him to ramp up the emotion and get angry, he falls short. His line delivery is stilted and he doesn’t have the physical presence in the role to carry the emotional weight that the script sometimes asks of him. This may be a result of both the character and the actor being a teen interacting with adults, so they are both ultimately unable to convey a full adult range of emotion. It’s not that Fugit is bad in the film, he just often seems overmatched when paired with the more charismatic Lee and Crudup.


Kate Hudson fares much better as Penny Lane, the famed groupie and founder of the “Band Aides.” While William is taking in this world for the first time, Penny is a season veteran, and Hudson, who grew up in a famous family, lends the character a world-weariness that feels earned. Hudson plays Penny Lane with supreme confidence throughout the first half of the film. She adopts a matronly position among the other Band Aides and William, and acts a sort of tour guide for the audience. Her youth belies her experience, and she exudes authority. However, by the end of the tour, Penny Lane and her Band Aides are left behind by the band, and the cracks in Penny’s confident façade start to show. Hudson’s last few scenes in the film are impressive, as she lets just a bit of Penny’s sad brokenness shine through those cracks. The scene where William finally tells Penny that she isn’t going on the rest of the tour with Stillwater because Russell sold her, along with the rest of the Band Aides, to Humble Pie for $50 and a case of beer is a perfect example of Hudson’s performance range in the film. She turns her head away from the camera, obviously hurt, and then turns it back to look at William, wiping away a single tear and quietly asks, “What kind of beer?” as a smile starts to bloom on her lips. Penny’s heart is breaking and that single tear contains a lifetime of sadness, but it’s all the vulnerability she can allow herself. Penny Lane could have been a concept, or a cliché, rather than a fully realized character. In fact, most of the men who claim to be in love with Penny throughout the film only know her as a cliché and are in love with the concept of Penny. It’s in these small scenes shared with William that Hudson’s performance lends Penny a well of emotional depth.

As is probably abundantly clear by now, I really enjoy Almost Famous. I went through a big Cameron Crowe phase during high school, and Almost Famous was among my favorites of his at the time. As I mentioned, it spoke to the teenage music nerd in me. Despite all of his obvious flaws, I wanted to be Russell Hammond, although I would have settled for being William Miller. Penny’s bohemianism and easy charm reminded me of my girlfriend at the time. She was an actress, and she was prone to the same sort of poetic daydreaming that Penny was. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had asked me to go to Morocco with her, as Penny does with William. Almost Famous caters to that teenage impulsiveness, the feeling that if you can join the circus or a rock and roll band, you might never have to grow up. Of course, somewhere along the way I did grow up. I’m not sure that I have watched this, or any other Cameron Crowe film, since turning 25.


About three months ago, however, I purchased the extended cut of Almost Famous on Bluray. It was on sale an Amazon, and I was curious to see if the movie would hold up to my fond memories of it from adolescence. I was honestly surprised by how well it did, in fact, hold up. I may enjoy Almost Famous more now than I did then. Watching the film as an adult, I was less caught up in the romance and the spectacle of it all. I keyed in on the small performances, like Frances McDormand’s or Jimmy Fallon’s fantastic cameo as the band’s potential new manager. I appreciated the depth that underlies all of the showier aspects of the film. When I was young, I wanted to be Russell Hammond, but now I know that I was far more destined to be Lester Bangs. My role is to be the critic, feeding off of the art of the true creatives, and hoping that maybe my own prose will help someone to find their way to a new favorite film or rediscover an old one. Working on this project has made me much more comfortable in that role, one that I had a lot of trouble accepting and growing into as a younger writer. Brushing off old favorites like this one is a lot like trying on a favorite band T-shirt from your youth. It might not fit exactly the same way, because you’ve changed, but there’s still something familiar and comfortable about it because of all the memories you’ve made wearing it. I’m really beginning to enjoy digging through that old dresser.