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October 15, 2009 By:
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Breaking up is so hard to do ... Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is embraced by Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) in a difficult time. Photos by Wilson Webb

No country for old men? It's not looking so hot for younger ones either.

Welcome to Coen Country: Sibs Ethan and Joel -- blood-soakers both from their previous effort -- sluice and juice their Jewish background in "A Sensitive Man," opening Oct. 16.

Old men, sensitive men ... maybe it's Alan Alda country instead.

But, no, they've taken the Marlboro Man and made him into Matzah Mensch as their new film smokes rings around other efforts when it comes to exploring their own ethnicity in the Wild, Wild, Midwest of Minnesota

Fargo as freilach? Hardly, as these Hardy Boys of anti-Hollywood raise the ante on their iconoclastic, eccentric movie-making in a film as serious as a heart attack.

It's the ultimate Job opportunity for actor Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays the hapless, helpless, hell-hexed Larry Gopnik, a Jewish husband/ father not taken seriously by anyone within five feet of his Armageddon arc.

His son celebrates High Holidays high on marijuana; his daughter wants to blow her budget on a nose job; his couch-sleeping brother may have been the actual prototype for La-Z-Boy recliners; and there's even no room at the inn -- Gopnik's wife pushes him out of the bedroom to make room for her new boyfriend, the obviously named Sy Ableman, whose bass sounds like the voice of God, but whose plans are for a diorama of doom.

Seeking a stable life, Gopnik is forced to find the comfort and solace of three wise men -- okay, a trio of rabbis with a guiding star complex.

So, Gopnik, got milk ... of human kindness? Not in this house.

"Well," says Stuhlbarg, a Shakespearean veteran, "I think of him more as a King Lear than a Job."

Talk about suffering for your art: Gopnik -- who looks as goopy as he sounds -- may as well throw his arms up to heaven, if they weren't already tied behind his back.

Luck be a lady tonight -- and loser be this landsman on Shabbat.

If stolid Stuhlbarg seems handpicked for the part by God, you have to hand it to the Coens, who had him audition for a role in the all-Yiddish, all-the-time film prologue.

"Oy!" oys the actor of taking Yiddish lessons for the audition.

But it all worked well, even if the other role went to another actor; such is life in the shtetl, where dybbuks (Fyvush Finkel) visit on a snowy night for a bowl of soup and get stabbed in the chest for their efforts.

But Stuhlbarg got the Cohen high-five anyway "as they considered me for the role of either Uncle Arthur" -- which went to Trenton's Richard Kind -- "or Larry," the lead. "But I would have taken anything to be in a Coen brothers film."

Blood simple: The brothers Coen write/direct together, winning awards -- as they did last year. They included the Oscar, among many others, for "No Country for Old Men."

But have they turned up the stereo too loud on the stereotypes in this effort? (Jewish figures have figured in some of their other works, such as "Miller's Crossing" and "Barton Fink.")

"Occasionally people would ask, 'You're not making fun of the Jews, are you?' We are not," said Ethan in production notes, "but some will take anything that isn't flattering as an indication that we think the whole community or ethnicity is flawed."

Added his brother: "The local religious leaders that we went to all had a good perspective and a sense of humor about the story."

It couldn't hurt.

The only one really hurting may be Gopnik, who watches his son's bumbling Bar Mitzvah unfold as if the kid is Twittering the Talmud through some weed.

"He's trying, he's trying," says Stuhlbarg, laughing as we talk of Gopnik's trifecta of loss, lucklessness and lameness as a lapdog to failure. "All that matters is that we try our best."

The family in many ways can try a movie-goer's patience. Minnesota fatuous: The troubles they endure would make the Northern Ireland conflict seem something of a lark.

In a way, shooting for the actor was a lark as well.

"It captured my imagination," says Stuhlbarg of living/shooting in the Midwest, where the Coens, Minnesota twins -- okay, not physically, but their psychic connection is singular -- added Yiddishkeit to corn-bred homilies in making their Gopniks gevaltnicks.

And Stuhlbarg has got it down right, but was the Bar Mitzvah scene rite on for him?

"My recollections of my own Bar Mitzvah are limited," he says. "I remember I felt pride, but also glad it was coming to an end."

It's all only beginning as bigger roles -- and possible awards -- await; next up, a stroll along HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" with director Martin Scorcese.

But then, Gopnik is not his first tortured-soul role.

From "The Pillowman" to "A Serious Man" ... Stuhlbarg's Broadway stint as a mentally menaced son of sadistic parents in Martin McDonagh's "Pillowman" earned him sweet dreams with a Tony Award nod and a Drama Desk Award.

While theater has been home, his heart has also found affection with parts in such films as "Body of Lies," "A Price Above Rubies" and "The Grey Zone."

Seems like a number of his complex characters live on the shady side of life.

"In a way," he muses. "After all, we're all human beings and have to live with the choices we make and with their consequences."

Indeed, the well-educated actor sports an Oxford collar -- he studied at colleges in Oxford, England, as well as UCLA and the Juilliard School, where he earned a BFA, with some time spent as an exchange student at the Vilnius Conservatory in Lithuania's Chekhov-studies program.

Was Uncle Vanya easier to grasp than Uncle Arthur?

"I learned a lot in Lithuania -- a lot about the Slavic Chekhov temperament," he says.

Speaking Up

But nothing may have been as unforgettable as studying under Marcel Marceau.

What's that you say? The silent treatment works?

"Actually," replies Stuhlbarg, "he was one of the most talkative people I've ever met. Wonderfully articulate."

Moreso, Marceau and the mime instructors taught him all about "the physical manipulation of the body," according to the actor.

Now he's got an impressive body of work to manage.

But when all is said and done -- and applauded -- Stuhlbarg understands that the most instructive dialogue of the movie comes not from the Coen brothers themselves, but from their quoting of the medieval -- and far from Minnesotan -- biblical sage Rashi: "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you."

And Stuhlbarg received the role of Larry with simplicity -- and excitement -- with an understanding of the man's seemingly simple yet complex character that may make him a contender to receive an Oscar on the evening of March 7.

It's a serious mandate for a seriously talented man.

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