LIKE FARGO AND Beautiful Girls, Feeling Minnesota presents our home state as a sunless hell populated by various idiot yokels in gauche '70s winter wear. For Hollywood purposes, apparently, we've become the new South. And no wonder: Behind the scenes, ours is little more than a cheaper place to shoot a movie. The few locations in Feeling Minnesota include a strip joint, a dilapidated motel, a graveyard, a gas station. The images have that ultra-grainy, monochromatic look characteristic of "realist" urban dramas from 25 years ago. Paint is peeling everywhere. The characters in the film are working-class; more specifically, they're uncouth gangster types who fuck and fight and kill each other. The possibility of a happy ending is contingent on whether the two least unappealing of these Neanderthals can cross the border, any border. This may be the Minnesota Film Board's third big movie of the year, but I can't imagine that it'll do much for the tourist trade.
According to its press kit, Feeling Minnesota is "set in a frigid landscape filled with small-time crooks, dirty cops, and broken dreams," and tells of "a trio of losers from the chilly state that gave us Bob Dylan and Spam." Yah, you betcha. The losers include Freddie (Cameron Diaz), a supposed gun moll who's forced to marry a scumbag strip club accountant named Sam (Vincent D'Onofrio) as punishment for allegedly stealing money from his boss; and Sam's brother, Jjaks (Keanu Reeves), who shows up at the wedding unshaven and without a gift, enjoys a frenzied bathroom tryst with the horny bride, and then accidentally gives his mother a fatal heart attack.
So begins a film that holds one's interest because of its chaotic feel rather than in spite of it. Giving the Canadian-born, first-time writer-director Steven Baigelman the benefit of considerable doubt, he's come up with something perverse and fairly original: an intriguingly uncomplicated, anti-energy screwball gangster movie with a shaggy-dog narrative and a cipher (Reeves) in the center. At its best moments, Feeling Minnesota seems purposely wayward and blatantly disreputable.
In this sense, Reeves might well have been cast precisely for his vacant look of incomprehension and his stoned, pseudo-Shakespearian dialect. His Jjaks pretty much personifies the film's misanthropic vision of life in our state. "It feels so good," he says, apropos of his second sexual encounter with Diaz's Freddie, "that it's bound to turn to shit!" For her part, Freddie dreams only of getting her hands on Sam's hidden bankroll and moving to Las Vegas, where it's "sunny and warm." So these two gorgeous dumbbells hit the road, ostensibly feeling Minnesota in a cringe-inducing scene of them swilling champagne and singing along to the Replacements' "I Will Dare." ("Unsatisfied" might have been more to the point, but whatever.) Sam follows them to a motel and proceeds to do a couple of things that are unspeakably nasty. The film's other chief villain is a cop who, as played by the dreaded Dan Aykroyd, displays a hint of our nasal patois but sounds more like an old Irish-Catholic Chicagoan with a bad hangover.
Feeling Minnesota gets screwier as it goes along, with cameo appearances by a horse, a bitten-off ear, and Courtney Love as a one-dimensionally sweet coffeeshop waitress. One typically weird scene finds the two immature brothers killing time by pitching rocks at each other from opposite sides of the highway. Most of the film's grace notes are struck by the bear-like D'Onofrio, whose Sam begins the movie as a sexist slob in a baby-blue tuxedo, but turns oddly endearing as he becomes increasingly bruised and bloody. Another piss-poor simpleton, Sam is doggedly in pursuit of what he calls "the American Dream," represented by a brochure for a cheap-looking condo somewhere out west. (To quote another Replacements tune, anywhere's better than here.) The myth of Minnesota Nice is thoroughly trounced in a scene when Sam, desperate to make a call from an occupied phone booth, receives the following parable from a grumpy old Minnesotan: "Life is one big emergency, man, so fuck off."
As one might expect, the dialogue in David Mamet's American Buffalo is even more colorfully hostile. This film likewise harkens back to the '70s with its grungy mise-en-scène and performance by Dustin Hoffman as Teach, a penny-ante hustler insomniac who resembles a cross between Ratso Rizzo and Lenny Bruce in caricature mode. Teach motormouths his way around the junk shop run by Donny Dubrow (Dennis Franz) as the two kick around ideas for a chintzy heist to restore their manhood. "We live like the cavemen," Teach says, effectively pegging this as the typical Mametian study of the white guy besieged by modern times. If the antagonist and victim of Mamet's Oleanna was a female college student, here it's a 15-year-old black kid (Sean Nelson) who pays dearly for wanting a piece of the action. Albeit plenty watchable, this stagebound adaptation directed by Michael Corrente (Federal Hill) feels familiar--not to mention remote and undeveloped. After a quick 90 minutes, you get your money's worth of both Mamet and Method, without much Meaning.