Feeling Minnesota

on September 13, 1996 by Christine James
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Between "Fargo" and "Feeling Minnesota," Scandinavian-Americans are getting a bad rap in 1996, their predominant cinematic depiction being as idiosyncratically vernaculared bumbling doofus murderers. But where "Fargo" hit a bullseye as a hilariously twisted midwestern black comedy, "Feeling Minnesota" misses the mark, with much of the humor coming too late, after we've already discovered the protagonists are too unappealing and unsympathetic to be funny. The closest thing to a hero in this film is Jjaks (Keanu Reeves), who would have been named Jack were it not for an unforgivably poor typist in the maternity ward. Beginning life on the wrong foot, things get only worse, thanks to a sadistic older brother, Sam (Vincent D'Onofrio), and a drugged- out, apathetic, white-trash mom (Tuesday Weld). Jjaks' traumatic upbringing has led him to a life of small-time crime, but now he's determined to start anew. He returns home to attend his brother's wedding and try to resolve childhood issues, but instead he winds up creating significant new problems when he beds (or, more accurately, bathroom floors) Sam's new wife, Freddie (Cameron Diaz). An unwilling bride to say the least, Freddie was forced under threat of death to marry Sam as a punishment for supposedly stealing from a local crime boss ("Clockers'" Delroy Lindo)--and as a reward to Sam for "discovering" the theft. She's looking for someone to rescue her, and she sets her sights on Jjaks.
   As someone who's motivated as much by greed and selfishness as by actual affection, it's hard to root for Freddie, despite the unfair treatment she's received. Sam is a creep who has lied, stolen, and commandeered a woman's life for his own happiness, but there's a sad, pathetic side to him as well that almost elicits compassion. Unfortunately, his malevolent persona returns too quickly for the pity to take hold. And whatever Jjaks is trying to do to better himself, he doesn't seem to be anywhere near the right path, so audiences can't cheer him on either. Dan Aykroyd (the only one with a good Minnesotan accent) adds another vile character to the mix as a corrupt, completely amoral cop.
   What worked for "Fargo" was the overall lightheartedness in the face of horror, and the humor and likability of heroes and villains alike. Here, though, pathetic people trade banter and punches in deadeningly bleak circumstances, with no light at the end of the tunnel. One character combination has the potential to be funny--a developing, increasingly odd relationship between Sam and a waitress (Courtney Love)--but, disappointingly, it doesn't go anywhere.
   Still, as far as their characters permit, Reeves, D'Onofrio and Diaz all give genuine, well-thought-out performances that make moviegoers want to get into the spirit of the film, and the script is not without its moments. But the philosophical and psychological depth that first-time writer/director Steven Baigelman strives for is found only in "Feeling Minnesota's" production notes, having been expressed far too obscurely in the film. The title is another allusion that's never explained in the movie; the press kit explains that it is a lyric fragment from a Soundgarden song: "I just looked in the mirror, things aren't looking so good, I'm looking California and feeling Minnesota." Without being certain what the concept of "Feeling Minnesota" entails even with that background, it sounds as though Scandinavian-Americans are getting dissed once again. Doesn't that just take the butter out of your lutefisk! Starring Keanu Reeves, Vincent D'Onofrio and Cameron Diaz. Directed and written by Steven Baigelman. Produced by Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher. A Fine Line release. Comedy. Rated R for violence, sexuality and language. Running time: 96 min.
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