Film Reviews: Wednesday, November 08, 2006
Stranger Than Fiction
Starring Will Ferrell and Emma Thompson. Directed by Marc Forster. Written by Zach Helm. Rated PG-13.
Narrative Voice

Itís Stranger Than Fiction when your main character hears heís going to die.


I can safely say that Stranger Than Fiction is stranger than your average movie. The film isnít odd because itís about a character in a story who tries to influence his author. No, whatís so unusual is the scriptís meditation on free will and mortality wrapped in the packaging of a wacky Hollywood comedy. You can easily imagine in your head the luminous, humane, heartwarming, life-affirming masterpiece that this movie wants to be. Focus on whatís actually on the screen, however, and youíll find that it falls just short.

Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an acutely boring IRS auditor whose boringness diminishes severely when a voice that only he can hear starts describing him and his lifeís routine ďaccurately, and with a better vocabulary,Ē as he says. That voice belongs to acclaimed, reclusive, creatively blocked novelist Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), who has created Harold as the main character of a book sheís in the process of writing. Little does she know that Harold is a real person who freaks out when he hears her foreshadowing his death.

Harold consults a professor of literary theory (Dustin Hoffman) to find out what kind of story heís in. After posing a few silly questions, the professor rules out the possibility of the taxman being Hamlet, Scout Finch, Frankensteinís monster, or a golem. Too bad the movie wonít tell us what Harold is. If he exists independently of Karenís book, then how does Karen know what will happen to him? If heís entirely her creation, how does he hear her? After all, most fictional characters arenít privy to their authorsí thoughts about them. So many other films have handled metafiction better (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story from earlier this year, for one), this oneís ineptness is glaring.

More problematic is the choice of Marc Forster to direct this movie. The Swiss filmmaker has helmed not one but two seriously overrated pictures of recent years: the faux-gritty indie flick Monsterís Ball and the fuzzy J.M. Barrie biopic Finding Neverland. Heís not untalented, and itís admirable that he tries to make movies that arenít anything alike. One thing heís no good at, though, is bringing the funny. A sharper comic mind like Spike Jonze would have played the premiseís absurdity to perfection. Forsterís direction is slick and bright, but he doesnít have the timing that Zach Helmís script needs.

Perhaps he expected his actors to pick up the slack, but they donít. Ferrell is too busy toning down his natural wackiness, and the heavyweight supporting cast never quite rises to the occasion of providing the laughs. Which isnít to say theyíre wasted; Maggie Gyllenhaal finds a wonderful melancholy undertone to her role as an audited baker who falls for Harold ó much as she loves baking cookies all day, part of her really wishes she had stuck it out in law school and become a political activist.

Haroldís quest to find meaning in his life before itís taken from him has its poignancy as well, and the storyís layer of metafiction dries it out so that the proceedings donít get too weepy. Stranger Than Fiction is always watchable and frequently amusing. It could so easily have been more, though.

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