Oscars update: "A Serious Man" may be nominated for best picture, director, actor, screenplay and . . . ?
Based on strong audience reactions this past weekend and rave critics' reviews, "A Serious Man" looks like an Oscar underdog to watch. Shrewdly, Focus Features unleashed it s-l-o-w-l-y in limited release at only six theaters nationally last weekend where it earned a respectable $251,337.
After I missed seeing it at the Toronto Film Festival thanks to being laid up in my hotel room with a busted foot, I tried to catch up with it Saturday night at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in Manhattan, but all evening performances were sold out. I ended up seeing it Sunday afternoon. While hanging out at the theater over two days trying to negotiate a ticket, I spied audience reax closely: Everyone seemed moved, impressed, many even enthralled.
Expect Oscar voters to be even more so. I think they're going to take "A Serious Man" very seriously — and personally. The man mentioned in the title is quite similar to the average Academy member: a schleppy, middle-aged Jewish guy who struggles to find the meaning of life in a world that recently cut him off, dumped a ton of garbage on him and then sent him a bill for cleanup.
There's another movie much like it in this Oscars derby, "Up in the Air," starring George Clooney as a frequent corporate flyer who suffers a midlife crisis too, albeit of a different, classier sort. "Up in the Air" may do well with academy voters too, but it doesn't have the religious twist, the gravitas that gives "A Serious Man" its extra power. Most Oscarologists believe "Up in the Air" will score bids for best picture, director, screenplay and actor, so doesn't that mean "A Serious Man" might too? In our Gold Derby poll, 56% of respondents say, as of Monday afternoon, that it will make the top-10 best-picture list. Give us your vote here. Read what our forum posters think of its Oscar hopes here.
What both films have in their favor is a key plus in competition: celebrated directors/writers — Joel and Ethan Coen ("A Serious Man") and Jason Reitman ("Up in the Air"). The Coens recently won best picture for "No Country for Old Men," of course, beating Reitman's "Juno." "Up in the Air" has several advantages over its current rival: a hot, A List star in a movie with much bigger box-office potential opening with a more Oscar-friendly release date (December).
By comparison, "Serious Man" has two edges. One is the quirky way Oscar voting works with that preferential ballot: "Serious" will score lots of No. 1 votes, perhaps even more than "Air." Also, its early theatrical release will mean that Focus Features won't have to pay top buck to make watermarked DVDs to send to Oscar voters via special delivery. It can blitz Hollywood with cheap, regular DVDs — the same strategy "Crash" used to pull off a best-picture upset over Focus Features' "Brokeback Mountain" a few years ago.
Focus Features has also been in the derby recently with "Milk," "Eastern Promises" and "Atonement." It knows the campaign game well, winning best actor and screenplay last year for "Milk." I think "A Serious Man" has a shot at nominations for both of those same awards, plus best picture, director and supporting actor (Richard Kind or Fred Melamed). I don't believe it can win the latter three, but it may be seriously in the running for the first two.
Don't write off Michael Stuhlbarg in the lead-actor contest just because he's not well known to the public. Only members of the academy's acting branch decide performance nominations, and most of them are aware of Stuhlbarg, who was recently nominated at the Tonys for best featured actor in "The Pillowman." Lots of obscure actors get nominated, especially if they have theater chops like David Strathairn ("Good Night, and Good Luck") and William H. Macy (Coen Brothers' "Fargo"). Some of the obscure, snooty theater types even win — like Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Capote") and F. Murray Abraham ("Amadeus").
Photo: Focus Features