Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The 40 Year Old Informant!

Am I the first one to notice a similarity between the posters for The Informant! and The 40 Year Old Virgin? (Shown with one hyphen in the title here, but most often represented without any hyphens.)

Yep, there's something to be said for making us think of doofuses from the late 1970s or early 1980s when advertising a comedy.

I'm not sure what it is, exactly, but when a movie poster mines nostalgia from this era, it really works for me.

However, it's not quite as simple as that. Neither of these movies is actually set in the era its poster invokes. Despite his cheesy mustache, Matt Damon's informant is based on a real person from the early 1990s. And despite his unironic striped polo shirt and neatly parted hairdo, Steve Carell's virgin is straight out of present day. (The present day of 2005, when the movie was released, anyway.)

Likewise, I think a poster that uses signatures from the late 70s/early 80s, for a movie also set during that era, would not stand out to me -- would not have the same impact. In that case, it would just be realism/period appropriateness. In the two cases above, it's pure artifice, deviously designed to rope us in. Instead of feeling manipulated, however, I recognize what it is, and love it all the more.

Put simply, the era in question speaks to us right now. And by "right now," I don't mean September 15, 2009. I mean it speaks to Generation X, the generation expected to add the most to these movies' coffers, even if younger audiences will be heavily represented as well. And it has been speaking to us for some time now, at least as far back as the 2005 poster for Virgin.

Consider another poster I found for Virgin. Would you have been quite so interested in the movie if this is what they'd circulated to advertise it?

I think not. It looks no better than any dumb T&A comedy from the last two decades. You've got a cheeky pun in the tagline (the harder it gets -- heh heh, huh huh), and then you've got the V in Virgin doubling as a zipper on a pair of pants. Plus, a garish and totally unimaginative title font. What a crap-ass poster.

But throw a little 1970s/1980s irony in there, and you're prepared for the movie you'll actually get -- something hilarious yet sublime, something highbrow even in its most lowbrow moments. Who knows how adversely the box office would have been affected by this other poster, or whether the movie would have even reached the audience that has elevated it to among the best comedies of the last ten years.

I can tell you that the poster they did use was a factor in ratcheting up my excitement tenfold for Virgin. It was original and striking.

And I have to admit, even though I've enjoyed the trailers for The Informant!, it was that funny poster with the giant-sized, twice hyphenated "unbelievable," and the cheeky delight in Matt Damon's eyes, that really made me think this could be something special. It's just a poster, of course, but there's something avant-garde about it, something that suggests a whimsical outside-the-box quality to the whole production.

This is "fun Steven Soderbergh" we're getting rather than "serious Steven Soderbergh," so it's hard to know how far outside the box he was allowed to stray during this, his every-other-movie debt to the studios. If you've followed Soderbergh's career at all, you know he follows a "one for me, one for them" system, almost pathologically alternating pet projects (Full Frontal, Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience) with easily accessible, mainstream product that rakes in the dough (Oceans Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen). This is a topic that's worth exploring at length some other time, but let's just say another aspect of the Informant! ad campaign is to leave no doubt about the Soderbergh you're getting here. The trailer trumpets "From the director of Ocean's Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen!" And, probably of equal importance, The Eurythmics' "Would I Lie to You?" plays manically throughout the trailer.

But I'm not saying I want the serious Soderbergh all the time. I just want the guy whose movie poster gave me a nebulous sense of optimism, that same optimism I felt when I first looked up at those billboards and saw an earnest Steve Carell grinning back down at me.

You know, an earnest Carell who would have seemed perfectly at home in, say, 1981.

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