Seeing Cinema in a New Light: Criticism, Essays and Observations about Classic Cinema

1990s Movies, Crime Drama, Film Criticism and Analysis, Overrated

Why Very Few People Got the Mike Yanagita Plot Point in Fargo (1996)

Mike Yanagita from Fargo (1996)

Mike Yanagita from Fargo (1996)

Problem #5: The Scene Contradicts Why Jerry Lundegaard is Such a Screwup

Aside from everything I mentioned so far, there’s a fifth reason why the defense of the Mike Yamagita scene as “clever” plot point doesn’t wash; it also directly contradicts Jerry’s character and the very reason why his mastermind scheme fails so badly.

What do I mean by “Jerry’s character?” I’ll explain by asking a simple question first: why do you think Jerry is a salesman at a car dealership? What is the relevance? Really think about this for a second.

Are you stumped? That’s okay. I’ll explain this to you.

The most obvious reason is that he’s a salesman is that it’s needed for the plot point involving the Sierra. However, there’s another reason. It’s because Jerry was a specific type of archetype in comedy that would’ve been instantly recognizable to 1990s audiences–the Used Car Salesman. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, for the longest time there was a trope in comedy about how all used car salesmen were slimy, disgusting bullshit artists. This trope was so common that it was used in many movies and TV shows throughout the years. For example, here is a scene from an episode from I Dream of Jeannie.

Why was the used car salesman archetype so popular in comedy? In real life, these guys were very good at what they did. They were so good that every American has had at least one really bad experience either getting conned into buying a lemon or has met a salesman insulting their intelligence by laying it on real thick. Naturally, Americans wanted their heads on a platter, so comic writers decided to channel their anger into something more positive. They would create funny characters and scenarios that stereotyped used car salesmen as arrogant bullshit artists whose slimy tactics anyone could see a mile away. The idea was to show that used car salesmen weren’t nearly as smart as everyone gave them credit for and to make people not be so gullible to them.

A TV show character who embodied this archetype was Larry Dallas from Three’s Company (played by Richard Kline). A running joke on the show was that he’d try to fool one of the characters with some bullshit. Almost instantly, one of the other characters would instantly dismiss him with a line like, “Oh, gimme a break, Larry. Who do you think you’re talking to? One of your customers?”

John Ritter and Richard Kline in Three’s Company

Going back to Fargo, the Coens were playing out this comedic car salesman trope to explain why Jerry’s plotting and scheming goes awry. I have to say this, because a lot of people don’t understand why the mastermind plot spirals out of control. It’s not because Jerry is incompetent or because he unwittingly hired a pair of sociopaths to carry his scheme out. It’s because he’s the epitome of the arrogant used car salesman archetype who has an over-inflated view of himself as a master manipulator. He thinks that he’s so amazing at conning people that he can use his bullshitting skills to pull off a criminal mastermind plot.

Yet, as it turns out, precisely because he is a car salesman, no one ever believes what he says or takes him seriously. Consequently, since everyone sees through him, he can never get anything done, because all everyone does is second guess or dismiss him. So, the more he tries to set things right when things go wrong, the less he gets anything done. People simply just dismiss him or thwart his bullshitting tactics.

As if this weren’t bad enough, Jerry happens to be the worst car salesman in the world, so his manipulative tactics and smooth talking are transparent to even the most unsophisticated people. If you watch all of Jerry’s scenes, you’ll see that every single person in the movie treats him like a nincompoop, calls him out as a liar, second guesses him or knows how to deflect when he tries using his used car salesman skills on him.

For example, in the opening scene at the diner, Carl immediately demands to know why Jerry needs the money, because he senses that there’s some information that Jerry is holding out on. The middle-aged couple trying to buy a car–the ones who look like a pair of rubes–are able to see through Jerry’s nonsense about TruCoat and call him out as a liar immediately.

Wade and his business partner at the dealership refuse to go along with his absurd scheme to lend him an obscene amount of money. Jerry keeps trying to use his used car salesman tactics on them to convince them to do it, but no matter how many times he switches his tactics, they keep saying, “We’re not a bank, Jerry.” Shep Proudfoot refuses to help him get in contact with Carl, no matter how much Jerry begs and begs, and just says, “I can’t vouch for him,” over and over again.

Even a company representative requesting information from Jerry over the phone–involving a set of cars at the dealership–calmly stays the course and demands that he hand over the requested documentation. The rep doesn’t know Jerry from Adam, yet even he isn’t fooled by his slimy double talk. He just rebuffs Jerry again and again and says in so many words, “I understand that, but you still need to send us this information before we can proceed.”

Keep in mind that all of this isn’t just to explain what Jerry is but to explain why very few people understood this subplot about Marge having this eye-opening moment about Jerry having lied to her. If Jerry was set up to be the quintessential used car salesman character who everyone sees for the double taking bullshitter that he is–even the hick TruCoat couple and the customer rep on the phone–Marge would’ve also seen through him.

So, when she was first questioning Jerry during her investigation, no one in the audience was thinking that she didn’t see through him. They assumed that just like Carl, Wade, Shep, the TruCoat couple at the dealership and all the other people who calmly dismissed or ignored Jerry, she saw through him immediately.

Oh, I know, I know. You’re going to say, “She didn’t grill him the first time. That shows that she believed him. If she thought he was lying, she would’ve immediately started giving him the third degree.”

Yes, it’s true that when she first interviewed Jerry, she didn’t push him when he lied. But at that point, she was still trying to piece together her criminal investigation of the highway murders, and there still weren’t enough clues to figure out what part–if any–that Jerry had to play in anything. Because of this, the assumption on the part of the audience during this scene wasn’t that she naively believed him; the assumption is that she’d figure out in due time what a liar he was but needed more information to go on.

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