Make of the Coen Bros. career what you will. I’d be willing to bet they don’t really care since they seem to be making movies based on what tickles their fancy and not based on any idea of what’s going to resonate with the audience or “test” well with audiences. Sit down with a list of their movies and try to come up with a five-sentence synopsis that can be put on a poster and appeal to the same crowd that makes Transformers movies into mega-hits. I dare you.
Even their most accessible works – The Ladykillers, The Hudsucker Proxy – are so slyly subversive it probably blows right by most people, even as they confound expectations and conventions.
Two years ago they had one of the biggest critical successes of their run (truly saying something) with the fantastic No Country for Old Men (featuring one of the best movie endings ever) and then followed it up with Burn After Reading, a quirky comedy that left some people cold. Now they’re back with what some are calling their most biographic movie to date, A Serious Man.
The movie tells the story of Larry Gopnick, a Jew living in Minnesota in the 1960s who just tries to do what’s expected of him. But around him life seems to be unraveling and his serious, reserved nature just doesn’t know how to handle all that. His wife announces she’d like a divorce so she can marry his best friend, his kids are in all sorts of trouble and he’s having career difficulties as well. So he’s going through a rough patch and turns to a series of rabbis for help, only to be thrown into even more or a tailspin.
Looking at the poster for the movie, I just can’t help thinking that between them the Coens possess the biggest set of cajones that can currently be found in Hollywood. Seriously.
The poster simply shows the main character standing in a shirt and slacks on top of a house with a television antenna beside him. Between the outfit he’s wearing, including his glasses, and the mere presence of an antenna like this we’re told clearly we’re in the 1960s here.
It’s just so…boring. Nothing is happening. This could be anyone’s dad in that time period doing something that was pretty common at that time. He’s just…ordinary.
It’s also brilliant, conveying a sense of the movie so clearly to anyone who pays even the slightest bit of attention to it. There’s no copy save for the director’s credit at the top, which in and of itself speaks volumes and which actually enhances the imagery since we then have a bit of context for it.
The first trailer was released shortly after it was announced the film would make its first appearance at the Toronto Film Festival and…well…it’s kind of awesome. We get no backstory about why some bland looking schlub is getting his head pounded against the wall but that’s exactly what we see, with that rhythmic pounding then continuing as we see what else is going on in this guy’s life. His wife is very blandly announcing she’d like to start talking about a divorce, he gets into a car accident, he’s told the university he works for is being urged to not grant him tenure…basically things are a mess. And with all this coming to a head he’s trying to go see a Rabbi, only to be told that the Rabbi is busy thinking.
The trailer alone works on a level that’s just higher than most other films even attempt. It’s funny, it’s tragic. In short it looks very much like a Coen Bros. movie. There are no stars in it at all…none. But the story looks so darn funny and tragic that you don’t even notice. This is immediately appeal to fans of the filmmakers, even if most of the rest of the audience is going to be a bit perplexed and wonder why things aren’t laid out more clearly and where the recognizable faces are.
The movie’s official website opens up with a smaller version of the poster key art and a prompt to watch the trailer.
The main content menu in the middle of the page starts out with “Synopsis” and it contains just that, an overview of the film’s plot and cast and other important information about it. “Cast & Crew” has a list of the players and makers and their professional background.
“Video” is where you’ll find the trailer as well as two extended clips from the movie that, unlike many such clips, aren’t just pulled from the trailer. Or if they are, these scenes make such brief appearances it hardly even counts. Either way they give a brief taste of the movie’s flavor. There are a small handful of stills in the “Photos” section.
Production Notes and other information on items like the musical score and such can be found under “Articles.” Links to the movie’s Facebook page, the Focus Features Twitter account and a form to sign up for an email newsletter are contained under “Community.”
Finally, “Reviews” contains excerpts of – and links to – some of the reviews the movie has received in its early appearances, which is a great move.
The movie’s Facebook page has the poster, the trailer and clips and links to the reviews that have been written as well as a much more robust photo gallery and the conversations that people are having in anticipation of the movie.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
I haven’t seen any TV spots for the movie but there has been a fair bit of online advertising that I’ve come across, mostly appearing on sites with indie-film audiences in mind, so you can’t say the ads aren’t targeted. Those online banners used the same elements as the poster key art and made it clear the movie was coming from the Coens, with some full-motion units including what amounted to a condensed version of the trailer.
Media and Publicity
Right around the time the movie was making its debut at the Toronto Film Festival, where it picked up significant buzz, a nice slideshow of images from it in The New York Times (9/9/09). There were also interviews with that cast at the festival and more. That Toronto appearance would eventually result it being selected as the best film of the festival by entertainment writers.
Also in the wake of TIFF was news that it would make its “domestic” (read: We know Canada is North America, but come on…) debut at the Friars Club Film Festival (Variety 9/10/09), which is kind of perfect considering the ethnic origins of that group match up with who the movie’s about.
One of the biggest breakout stars from the movie, at least in terms of ink spilled, was lead actor Michael Stuhlbarg, a Broadway and stage veteran making his first starring turn on film and who reportedly anchors the film with a completely believable and note-perfect performances.
As is usual with campaigns for movies from Joel and Ethan Coen, there’s nothing here that’s going to set the mainstream media on fire. It’s too small, there aren’t any stars and it’s not something that’s instantly recognizable by the majority of the potential audience.
But for fans of the brothers’ previous work there’s a great deal here to get excited about. The campaign makes it clear, for those paying attention, that there’s a great story being told that will probably reward the viewer even further upon multiple viewings. For those familiar with the Coens’ filmmaking style the trailer especially shows that this film has that in spades and, really, that’s what’s going to get a lot of people to check it out. While not an out-and-out comedy like Raising Arizona or Hudsucker it also doesn’t appear to be a straight drama like No Country or Blood Simple, meaning it’s more likely to be akin to Fargo in tone, a funny movie with almost no laugh-out-loud moments.