Saturday, November 11, 2006
In Stranger Than Fiction , Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an IRS auditor who leads a very regimented, orderly and dull life. He loves numbers and that's about the only thing he expresses any feelings about. He counts his steps to work, deals with numbers all day, and depends on his watch to get him up in the morning and keep him to a strict timetable. But his quiet little world is disrupted by a voice, the voice of a British woman who is narrating his life. It's not a voice in his head telling him what to do but rather a voice outside his head describing everything he is doing as he's doing it.
Needless to say this causes him some concern. He visits a psychiatrist (a wonderfully calm Linda Hunt) who recommends that he speak to someone with a literary background rather than a psychiatric one. So he meets Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) who is supposed to help him figure out who the author is that's narrating his life. Meanwhile, the audience has already been introduced to the author. She is Kay Eiffel (a nicely disheveled and blocked Emma Thompson), a woman known for writing tragedies and killing off her main characters. Now Harold must discover who she is and find her before she write him out of existence.
Emma Thompson as author Kay Eiffel in Stranger Than Fiction (Columbia)
Filmmaker Marc Forster previously directed Finding Neverland , a film about how author James M. Barrie created his famous Peter Pan . That film explored something of the author's creative process as he attempted to create a magical world. In Stranger Than Fiction , we also get a glimpse into that creative process as Kay faces writer's block and attempts to find a satisfying way to kill off her main character. The added complication or twist in this case is that her character of Harold Crick happens to be a real person, and every word she types has an impact on his life. Forster begins the film with some visual cleverness. As Kay narrates the mundane and numbers driven events in Harold's life (from counting toothbrush strokes to adding numbers in his head at work), Forster has lively graphics dance around the screen to convey what's going on in Harold's head, and how he sees the world. Walking to work, for example is so many steps that take so many minutes or seconds, and the graphics mark off those steps like a ruler as seconds tick by on the screen. The look is slightly reminiscent of the graphic enhancements used in Fight Club where we see the main character's room like an Ikea catalogue with prices and descriptions of each item in his apartment. In both instances, the clever visual style marks a sharp contrast to the mundaneness of the characters lives.
Forster and screenwriter Zack Helm settle on a good tone for the film. They present the surreal occurrence of someone narrating Harold's life as something that just happens. They don't waste time trying to explain why it occurs or what the rules are that guide it. It just happens and has to be dealt with by the characters. That's a refreshing approach that prevents the film from bogging down in expository scenes to explain the phenomenon. As a consequence of this approach, the film maintains a fairly direct and natural visual style -- aside from the flashy graphic treatment dresses up the opening scenes.
The place where the film runs into problems is in trying to decide -- like Harold -- as to whether or not it is a comedy or a tragedy. As we know, comedy sells much better and that's the direction the film leans. That's probably why they cast ex- Saturday Night Live player Will Ferrell rather than a non-comedic performer, and that's also what probably drives the decision to end the film as they do. But that also makes the film a slighter work than it might have been if someone like Charlie Kaufman had actually written the script. Kaufman has the ability to mix comedy and tragedy with unexpectedly poignant and compelling results. Stranger Than Fiction provokes a casual thought here and there but pulls back to the safer realm of light entertainment so as not to tax its viewers with any substantial contemplation of ideas.
Whether or not you like the film will probably depend on your opinion of Will Ferrell. If you like him you will probably enjoy the film, but if you think he's stretching his limited range than you will likely walk away unimpressed by the movie. Ferrell seems to think that just toning down his performance makes it serious, but it really just makes it bland and dull. I have enjoyed Ferrell in films like Old School, Anchorman and Dick but have found him miscast and annoying in films such as Elf . As with other Saturday Night alumni, I find him better in small doses than in starring roles because he seems more gifted at sketch comedy than at developing three-dimensional characters that have to travel some dramatic arc. I would have preferred to see someone who has both comic and dramatic skills, maybe a Paul Giamatti or Steve Buscemi.
Stranger Than Fiction (rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, sexuality, brief language and nudity) will likely be warmly embraced by Will Ferrell fans and people who have not seen Charlie Kaufman's films. If you are lukewarm to Ferrell and love Kaufman's work, what you'll see in Stranger Than Fiction is a work that had the potential to be something more than just an entertaining film to pass the time with.
Companion viewing: Adaptation, Finding Neverland, Anchorman