Freeze Frame

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

Broad strokes compared to what--Grumpy Old Men and Fargo? "There have been about 90 films shot here now," Adamsick says, alluding to a 30-year history that could conveniently be broken into three chapters: the sporadic visits from Hollywood in the '70s (Airport, Heartbreak Kid, Ice Castles); the '80s' homegrown indies (The Personals and Patti Rocks, plus Warner Bros.' Purple Rain); and the '90s' mix of medium-budget studio films (e.g., the frozen-tundra trilogy of Grumpy Old Men, Fargo, and A Simple Plan) and not-quite-breakout independents (World and Time Enough, With or Without You, Homo Heights). But despite this seemingly wide array of titles, "when you look at the whole range of images of Minnesota," Adamsick says, "it's pretty narrow--somewhere between Fargo and Grumpy Old Men. And in terms of how we look, these two films almost exactly define the parameters of who we are. I mean, it's still the whitest place on earth."

If that's true (or not, even), it stands to reason that such a place would serve as an industry outpost and overall blank canvas for film artists wanting to paint in a particular shade of white. And if the fictional version of the state happens to resonate with the natives, all the better--which is partly why Adamsick feels comfortable thinking of Grumpy Old Men as "the first real identifier of Minnesota in the movies." After the Grumpy films came out, he says, "the Film Board really changed. That's when people started calling to say, 'You know, that was my Uncle Harry up there on the screen in that movie. That was him--and by the way, my Uncle Harry had a really interesting life. Do you think I should develop that into a screenplay?'"

Adamsick remembers an illuminating late-night talk-show session on 'CCO radio, just after Grumpier Old Men (1995) and Fargo (1996) had opened. "The host and I were taking calls from listeners, and the topic was, 'What do you think should be the subject of a movie about Minnesota?' God, it was amazing. People called from all over the Midwest. My favorite was this older guy--he sounded really old--who called in and was literally like, 'Hell-o there now, my name is Sven? And my brother Peter and I, well...we often go to the lake and sit on chairs.' And there was this long pause. And finally I asked this man if there was any more to his story. And he just said, 'No. That's pretty much it.'"

In the prototypical "Minnesota" of The Heartbreak Kid, Sven's screen equivalent appears as an impossibly tall über-Gopher with a silly white coat and ski-bum locks that double as earmuffs. Walking arm in arm with Kelly on the icy campus and looking instantly suspicious when Lenny bursts onto the scene, this Aryan Goliath keeps his mouth open in freezing weather but only one word comes out: "Kelly?" Unlike Lenny, the guy shows no sign of hustling; his privileges appear to come to him naturally, and he's prepared to guard them with his life. Hence, the "guy with the big neck" is the spitting image of Kelly's equally reserved and proprietary daddy, the implication being that these Nordic supermen are all alike.

Reviewing The Heartbreak Kid in the Village Voice in late '72, critic Molly Haskell asserted that "the WASPs are treated with hardly a trace of the caricature lavished on the Jews"--although the "guy with the big neck," provided he could read the Voice, might beg to differ. Similarly, Pauline Kael suggested in her otherwise rave review that "most of the Wasps in the film don't have the dimensions of the New York Jewish characters... there isn't enough dissonance in these people." Indeed not--but if the opposite of dissonance is conformity, might that not be part of the film's point?

In The Heartbreak Kid, Minnesota first appears as a whiteout, a blinding blur of snow, sun, sky, endless trees, and a big white mansion in the distance--the "WASP ice palace" writ large, as seen from Lenny's p.o.v. out the window of a cab. Lenny has come out here in the wake of his claustrophobic honeymoon road trip from New York to Miami, during which his sweet bride Lila had shrieked the lyrics to Burt Bacharach's "Close to You," worn egg salad on her chin, fried herself with sunburn, and repeatedly reminded him of his marital captivity, spanning "the next 40 or 50 years."

You might say poor Lila's crime was daring to act uninhibited--or not, as the true nature of Lenny's revulsion is kept provocatively ambiguous. (Could the problem be simply that Lenny and Lila didn't sleep together before they got married? Or that they left New York?) In any case, the newlywed salesman bids to trade up, having been sold on the inscrutable demeanor of Kelly, the blonde who brings him out to play and in no time flat renders him totally whipped. This despite (or because of) the Midwestern girl's gift for blowing hot and cold simultaneously (a climatological disposition, perhaps, as well as the direct product of a smiling mom and a scowling dad), not to mention her report that Daddy "hasn't met you yet, but just from appearances he doesn't like you." (The father's apparent anti-Semitism remains unspoken, consistent with both the character's polite intolerance and the film's pitch-black subtlety.)

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