Coen brothers fictionalize their 1960s upbringing in new film

Joel and Ethan Coen say their upbringing in suburban Minneapolis feels more “exotic” as the years pass, but add that more than a little artistic licence was at play in recreating those times in A Serious Man.

TORONTO — Joel and Ethan Coen say their upbringing in suburban Minneapolis feels more “exotic” as the years pass, but add that more than a little artistic licence was at play in recreating those times in A Serious Man.

The new film from the siblings behind Fargo centres on a Jewish physics professor whose life, both at home and work, is falling apart.

While their father was an economics professor and the story is set in their old neighbourhood of St. Louis Park, Minn., with characters named after people they knew, the brothers insists the plot is pure invention.

Still, blurring the lines between fact and fiction can leave audiences wondering which of the film’s flourishes are pulled directly from the Coens’ youth.

“Neither of us was stoned at our bar mitzvah,” Joel conceded last month at The Toronto International Film Festival, referring to the scene in which the professor’s son embarks on the Jewish rite of passage while stoned.

“It is a good idea. I wish we had thought of it at the time.”

A Serious Man is a black comedy with the feel of a small film — a return to form for the Coens that longtime fans are likely to embrace.

The brothers wrote the screenplay while they were adapting Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men — which won four Oscars — and penning the screwball comedy Burn After Reading.

Stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg, who as Larry Gopnik searches for answers from his faith for his marital and career problems, said he didn’t feel he was playing a historically specific version of the Coen brothers’ father.

“My character is a physics professor, their father was an economics professor. Both of them taught or teach at a midwestern university; both of them happen to be in Minneapolis,” he said.

“That being said, there’s a healthy dose of fiction in all of this.”

While the rigours of performing often mean that actors need to keep in good physical shape, the opposite was true for Stuhlbarg this time around.

“They said, ‘Don’t go to the gym, eat whatever you want. He’s a physics professor, he wouldn’t be thinking about his weight,’ ” said Stuhlbarg, who looks much leaner and stylish in person than the bespectacled, frazzled academic in the film.

The film is so steeped in the Jewish faith that some reviewers have suggested the Coen brothers have found religion with A Serious Man.

When that issue was raised, neither brother offered any insight into what religious questions they might be harbouring in their 50s.

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