Oscar-winning Coens head home with "A Serious Man"

TORONTO (Reuters) - If you think your life is tough, just be grateful Oscar-winning directors Joel and Ethan Coen aren’t the masters of your personal universe.

Directors Joel and Ethan Coen arrive at the "A Serious Man" film screening during the 34th Toronto International Film Festival, September 12, 2009. The festival runs from September 10-19. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

The brothers have delighted in heaping misery on their film characters since 1984’s “Blood Simple,” but usually reserve the suffering for deeply flawed individuals. There was, of course, troubled writer Barton Fink in 1991’s movie of the same name.

In “A Serious Man,” which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday, they set their sights on Larry Gopnik, a faithful husband and father whose only crime appears to be complacency with his stable life in 1960s Minneapolis, the same city where the brothers grew up.

“His complacency is part of what makes you frustrated with him as a character,” Joel, the elder of the filmmaking brothers, told Reuters.

But Larry’s sense of stability quickly evaporates when his life starts to unravel in several ways. His wife tells him she’s taken with a pompous acquaintance. He finds his kids are siphoning away his money, and his career as a physics professor becomes threatened by an apparent bribe and anonymous letters that accuse him of academic dishonesty.

Meanwhile, his lazy, cyst-ridden brother is becoming an increasing burden, and he is tormented by a woman next door who has a tendency to sunbathe nude.

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Set in the Jewish suburban neighborhoods of Minneapolis where the Coens lived their teenage years, the story bears more than a passing resemblance to the Old Testament Book of Job, in which a man’s faith in God is tested by a series of trials and tribulations. But the Coens insist they didn’t set out to tell a biblical story.

“We didn’t think about it that way when we were doing it. But retrospectively, yeah (there are similarities),” said Joel.

“But it’s not like his faith is being tested; it’s like he’s just trying to figure it out,” Ethan adds.

The Coens -- who won Oscars for best picture and director for 2007’s “No Country for Old Men” -- previously used the U.S. Midwest as the setting for 1996’s “Fargo” to great effect, winning another Academy award for screenwriting.

But “A Serious Man” marks the first time the prolific pair have taken direct aim at their experiences growing up in a community filled with unhelpful rabbis, pitiless divorce lawyers, and the odd anti-Semitic neighbor.

“Probably more so in this movie than anything we’ve ever done, this does come from our direct experience ... our own lives growing up,” said Joel.

The brothers also broke with their habit of casting from a regular troupe of actors -- among them, Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, George Clooney and Frances McDormand -- and picked relative unknowns.

Instead, they cast theater actor Michael Stuhlbarg in the lead, and relied heavily on local actors to fill out the cast.

“Casting George Clooney might break (the) illusion” of everyday, Midwestern Jewish characters, said Ethan.

The Coens, who have built both a critical and cult following with their subversion of genres in comedy, romance, crime and mobster films, are planning to next target westerns with a remake of 1969 John Wayne film “True Grit,” subject matter that should allow them to torment more unsuspecting, and possibly undeserving, characters.

“It’s always fun, and to be quite honest we’ve doing this for 25 years, heaping shit on characters,” said Joel.

Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Eric Walsh