Freeze Frame

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

Indeed, even less noted than the film's ethnic subtext is its stark yet unbelabored depiction of class conflict. The very first shot reveals a fast-paced Lenny on the job, toting his "sports novelties" supply bag door-to-door and driving a nifty little convertible (one of the film's countless tongue-in-cheek references to The Graduate) that would seem unattainable for a kid with his salary. "You'll be all right," urges the faux-Simon and Garfunkel theme song as Lenny stands in front of his mirror, practicing the look of a distinguished gentleman with a pipe and a suede smoking jacket. "You're goin' far." Indeed, the young salesman's affected airs lead him from Lila to Kelly, and, finally, to banker Dwayne Corcoran--who, treating his daughter as an investment, takes issue with the kid's stock in trade ("You sell balls and bats, huh?") but appears impressed later on when Lenny resists his offer of $25,000 to dump the girl. "There's not enough money in all the banks of Minneapolis!" the salesman claims. Cue wedding scene.

Albert, a native of Chicago who graduated from the University of Minnesota, told the Trib's Will Jones that it was his admiration for Simon's writing that finally persuaded him to play the villainous part--although it was the actor's wife, apparently, who first latched onto the screenplay. Per Jones's column: "My wife read it," Albert said, "and she told me, 'You have to do that, because it's really you.' I said, 'Me? Sour old bastard like this?' She said, 'Yes, that's you. Whenever a young man comes calling on Maria, that's exactly the way you act.' Maria is our 17-year-old daughter, and I guess my wife is right." (Albert, along with Berlin, won an award from the National Society of Film Critics for Kid and was also nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor.)

Speaking a few weeks ago from his home in Minneapolis, Jones recalled that Albert had been "bitching" about the shoot during interviews and expressing doubt about May's improvisatory methods. "I happened to mention what Eddie Albert had told me to Charles Grodin and Elaine May when I was having a snack with them one afternoon," says Jones. "And they both said they had no idea that he had felt this way [laughs]. I think they were a little shocked."

Dan Picasso

Nice, huh?

"How does the Eddie Albert character in The Heartbreak Kid relate to the father in Fargo?" Adamsick is wondering back at the Minnesota Film Board. "They're both the worst kind of businessmen--I mean, they are Carl Pohlad and Curt Carlson, both of 'em. They are hard-nosed, mean businessmen. I was laughing with Ethan [Coen] about this one day, about how the father in Fargo has this stereotypical Jewish bookkeeper. [The father] is discussing his investments at one point and he says, 'If you want to talk about this deal, you'll have to talk to Stan Grossman, 'cause he's my guy.'"

Indeed, leaving aside the "real" Minnesota for the moment, the world of Fargo, like that of The Heartbreak Kid, is one in which a Jew would either be a rare minority or a subservient sellout--or both. (Another common thread in the two films is the son-in-law's relationship to the patriarch's bank account: Recall that Fargo's Jerry Lundegaard is a Minnesotan so violently repressed he'd rather have his wife kidnapped than ask her dad for money.)

Following a trajectory opposite to that of Lenny Cantrow, the St. Louis Park-raised Coen Brothers had made New York City their home by the time they penned Fargo. But whereas the Coens had the apparent advantage of firsthand familiarity with the region (enough to fuel their cartoonish brand of satire, anyhow), The Heartbreak Kid's creators picked up their vision of the state from outside it--and somehow went on to deliver the most aptly biting and insightful representation of Minnesota ever committed to celluloid.

True, The Heartbreak Kid's "Minnesota" is to some degree an imaginary one--but much less so than Fargo's state full of dimwits (give or take a pregnant police chief) or Grumpy Old Men's rigorously uncomplicated middle class. (The two Grumpy films were also written by a former native, Mark Steven Johnson--which just goes to show how little being "from here" actually counts.)

"Isn't it possible," Adamsick supposes, "that The Heartbreak Kid is set in Minnesota precisely for the lack of definition in this state? Isn't it sort of true that until Garrison Keillor and Fargo--and I know it's true for people in L.A.--there was no identity of Minnesota in people's minds? When we would go to L.A. in the early days to meet with clients, there was no one who'd have the slightest clue about Minnesota--what it looks like, how people talk, the fact that there's an arts community here."

Perhaps a distorted image is indeed preferable to none at all. And perhaps the state's best-known exports also convey a characteristically Minnesotan dichotomy. The critically acclaimed art film and the lowbrow blockbuster. The film noir and the light comedy. The snarl and the smile. The twin poles of cinema for a climate of extremes? "Content-wise," Adamsick says, "these two movies do sort of sum it up. Grumpy Old Men is like Garrison Keillor: sweet and warm and cozy and comfortable. Whereas in Fargo, it's as if Marge [Frances McDormand] walks out of the cast of Grumpy Old Men and into this very dark world, with this gruesome and really odd crime at the center. To me, it gets at all the weird juxtapositions here. If we're so predictable, how is it that we elected Jesse [Ventura]? Why did Minneapolis have one of the highest murder rates around? Maybe the answer is that we were never all that warm and cozy to begin with."

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