Coens' new film 'A Serious Man' opens this weekend

A Serious Man
Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik, a man in crisis in "A Serious Man." It's the latest film by Joel and Ethan Coen.
Image courtesy Focus Features

Tomorrow, one of the most highly-anticipated Minnesota film events in years finally arrives: the release of the new Coen brothers movie, "A Serious Man." The film is the first the Coens have set in Minnesota since "Fargo."

Set in the 1960s in the Minneapolis suburb which bears a remarkable resemblance to the St Louis Park where Joel and Ethan Coen grew up, "A Serious Man" is a story of personal crisis. Larry Gopnik, a physics professor, is beginning to lose it.

"I've tried to be a serious man," said Gopnik in the film. "You know, tried to do right, be a member of the community, raise Danny, Sarah. They both go to school, Hebrew school. A good breakfast. Well, Danny goes to Hebrew school. Sarah doesn't have time. She mainly washes her hair."

Gopnik's life is in shambles. His wife wants a divorce for reasons he doesn't understand, he may not get tenure, his unemployed brother is sleeping on their couch, and his kids are insufferable. The film is very dark and very funny.

Hundreds of people turned out for the recent cast and crew screening of "A Serious Man." The Coens were there too, but declined MPR's request for an interview. They did however talk to an audience at the Walker Art Center for almost two and a half hours about their work.

They grew up in St. Louis Park, the sons to academics, but said any autobiographical elements in the film end there. They spoke of their interest in specificity: specificity of story, people and places.

Some cast members such, as St. Louis Park native and teenager Benji Portnoe, enjoyed entering the Coens' world.

"They actually truly believe that you know the character better than they do from the moment they cast you."

"My character Ronnie spends his time smoking and swearing, so definitely one of the more fun roles to play," he said.

Portnoe said he had to practice a great deal off set to get it right.

Several of the actors talked about how much they enjoyed working with Joel and Ethan Coen. Sari Lennick plays Larry Gopnik's wife Judith. Lennick said there was a family feeling on set.

"They actually truly believe that you know the character better than they do from the moment they cast you," she said. "So you have this intense feeling of wanting to make them proud and wanting to not blow it. So from the moment you start working you feel confident that they feel confident in you and you just don't want to screw up."

There are several jokes in "A Serious Man" which probably only Minnesotans will get.

Ethan and Joel Coen
Ethan and Joel Coen on the set of 'A Serious Man'
Image courtesy Focus Features

Broadcaster and critic Elvis Mitchell, who interviewed the Coens at the Walker said "A Serious Man" is clearly special for the brothers.

"It feels almost like after they made a big studio movie with Brad Pitt and George Clooney, it's a classic case of 'We did one for them, no we are doing one for us,'" Mitchell said. "I like that this movie really feels like it belongs to them in a way that 'Barton Fink' felt like it belonged to them and 'Fargo.'"

Mitchell said he's the wrong person to predict how a movie will do at the box office, but mentions no one would have predicted, particularly on opening weekend, that "Fargo" would be the pop cultural icon it has become.

The film's executive producer Bob Graf said he's not sure he agrees the film is more for the Coens than any of their other. However he said it is an important story for them.

"But it's a small movie, and it's sort of a quirky marketing challenge you could say," he said. "So we'll wait and see, and cross our fingers."

Bob Graf
Bob Graf is executive producer on "A Serious Man."
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

The film got good reviews out of its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival a few weeks back.

One critic described it as the dazzling culmination of 25 years of filmmaking by the Coens. The New Yorker's David Denby was much less kind, complaining the characters are "so drably unappealing that you begin to wonder what kind of disgust the brothers are working off."

Of course it will be the ticket buyers whose opinion matters now. The film opens this weekend in three cities: New York, LA and Minneapolis. For Minnesota Film and Television Board Executive Director Lucinda Winter, it's the end of one job, and she hopes the beginning of many others. She wants the word to spread that the Coens had a good experience making "A Serious Man."

"They were able to shoot efficiently, they were able to move around easily, and they were able to work with a really good crew," she said.

They also took advantage of the Snowbate, a filmmaking tax break offered by the state.

Minnesota has struggled to keep up with other states film incentives in recent years, but Winter said the bad economy has caused several states to pull these. She's hoping this will result in more moviemakers following the Coens back to Minnesota.

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