Freeze Frame

Forget Fargo and A Simple Plan: A quarter-century ago, The Heartbreak Kid had Minnesota down cold

The Minnesota Film Board still keeps a copy of the promo video it sent to prospective shooters in the days before Fargo. Made in 1992 and packed with film clips, the 10-minute tape is designed to offer nonnatives a crash course in the history of Minnesota features. There's Prince taking Apollonia on a motorcycle tour of Minnetonka in Purple Rain. A tacky-looking couple in tight shorts rollerskating around Lake Calhoun in The Personals. A stunt double for Charles Durning getting thrown off a rickety horse-carriage in Far North. And the punch line, taken from The Heartbreak Kid: A New York salesman (Charles Grodin) asking his blond object of desire (Cybill Shepherd), "So whaddya wanna live in a dumb place like Minnesota for?"

Good question--particularly if you're one of the big fish the Film Board routinely tries to lure to the Land O' Lakes. "Undaunted," the promo tape's narrator says, "by the news that Minnesota is not near New York, or even Los Angeles for that matter, the Minnesota Film Board set a goal to make Minnesota one of the top five markets in the U.S. for quality motion-picture and TV production--and to convince producers that Minnesota has more to offer than cold weather." Or cold people.

Surely one of the obstacles to the Film Board's mission circa '92 would have been The Heartbreak Kid (1972), a savagely satirical post-Graduate comedy that hits us right where we live. In it, honeymooner Lenny Cantrow (Grodin) meets the seductive Kelly Corcoran (Shepherd) on the sands of Miami Beach and, dumping his Jewish bride (Jeannie Berlin) like a bad habit, immediately follows the Minnetonka shiksa home to Daddy (Eddie Albert)--a stone-faced banker who vows to kick the kid's ass "right over the Canadian border."

Dan Picasso

Nothing if not determined, the young quasi hero braves subzero temperatures to court Kelly on the University of Minnesota campus, where he must also face off against her monosyllabic Nordic beau (Tim Browne)--alternately known as "the guy with the big neck" and "the captain of everything." As the romance works its way down the Fahrenheit scale, Kelly displays a strategic variety of mixed signals and sexual passive-aggressiveness; Daddy continues to seethe ("I don't want him in my house. I don't want him in this town!"); Mom (Audra Lindley) smiles incessantly ("[she's] so docile in her openness to ideas that she's practically an idiot," observed The New Yorker's Pauline Kael); and Lenny, hailing the Corcorans' meat-and-potatoes cuisine as "honest" and "real," somehow gets his ice queen.

In 1972, the film critic for Commonweal acknowledged the possibility of reading this as the story of "a gemütlich David from New York who triumphs over the Aryan Goliaths of the Midwest." Still, The Heartbreak Kid hardly inspired coast-based filmmakers to trek north in pursuit of their own victories. According to Minnesota Film Board Executive Director Randy Adamsick, "The Heartbreak Kid was really a case of these New York and L.A. Jews, like the Charles Grodin character, speculating that [Minnesota] was the total opposite of their experience--this frozen world. For the people who made it, coming here without hiring any local crew, Minnesota was really just a location--a remote location."

And so the state might have remained, Adamsick says, were it not for Walt Disney's The Mighty Ducks (1992)--a kids' comedy that "really put us on the map," kicking off the made-in-Minnesota movie renaissance from which the nonprofit Film Board continues to benefit. In other words: Thank heaven for the string of juvenile sports movies that would naturally find a home in "a dumb place like Minnesota"--and also for Disney exec Michael Eisner, who sent his brood to youth-hockey camp way out here.

"The Mighty Ducks being filmed here--in combination with the presence of Paisley Park--was enough to convince Warner Bros. that they could shoot Grumpy Old Men [1993] here. If we hadn't had Mighty Ducks, we would have never gotten the two Grumpy films or Little Big League [1994], and we would have never gotten Arnold [Schwarzenegger] here for Jingle All the Way [1996]."

God forbid.

What's funny is that The Heartbreak Kid--an impeccably smart antidote to the state's dumb-and-colder screen image and the unsurpassed high-water mark of Minnesota movies--uncannily predicted the region's celluloid association with meathead athletes and little kids. In addition to caricaturing the "captain of everything" (whom Commonweal indelicately described as "Kelly's ape of a boyfriend"), director Elaine May pointedly deviated from the script by Neil Simon in order to end the film with a completely improvised bit of business filmed in Minnetonka: the ambiguously triumphant, fully regressed Lenny at his second wedding reception, chatting up two preteen Minnesotans on a couch at the Lafayette Club. (As abruptly bleak, "now what?" endings go, The Graduate's bus-seat denouement has nothing on this cinematic dirge.)

So was The Heartbreak Kid correct in portraying Minnesota as a "WASP ice palace" (per the New York Times), a playground for kids of all ages? Sitting in his office amid a wealth of promotional toys and privileged souvenirs (ball caps from Little Big League, a snowy trinket from the Coen Brothers' Fargo, an oversized replica of an indie producer's check for $18,750.00, an impending avalanche of regionally relevant videotapes), the Film Board's resident advocate ponders the genesis of Hollywood's "Minnesota." "In L.A. they can only latch onto something if it's easy to latch onto," Adamsick says, his bearded face looking well-bronzed from the Tinseltown solicitations (sometimes in the company of the governor) that are central to his job. "And the Minnesota in The Heartbreak Kid is this sort of glib version of a cliché--an easy cliché in that Neil Simon, broad-strokes sort of way."

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