Saturday, November 11, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction, Better Than I Thought

Stranger Than Fiction takes a premise that feels like it was lifted from a post-it note in Charlie Kaufman's wastebasket. "A guy suddenly hears omniscient narration, hears of his imminent demise, and tries to figure out who's narrating and how he can save his life". And the resulting film could easily have been Charlie Kaufman-lite; studio infused weirdness for the sake of being weird. Cast Will Ferrell in it, and the audiences will have a grand old time.

Luckily the film is much better than on paper.

Fiction follows the life of Harold Crick (Ferrell), a lowly IRS agent consumed by numbers, spatial relations, and patterns. We're introduced to Crick on a very typical day, beginning with the exact number of brush strokes on his teeth in the morning, to the exact time he falls asleep every night. Alone. Harold is a lonely man, with few friends, as most people who work for the IRS might be given the amount of disdain the general population holds for our friends at the Internal Revenue Service. But all this changes the next morning when Harold hears the narration the audience has been hearing since the beginning of the film.

In a normal movie, this would lead to hijinks. Possibly shennanigans. But not so much here. Sure, there's the initial freak out scenes, especially when Harold realizes that nobody else can hear this voice. These are the scenes used in the trailers, which unfortunately give a little too much away and are misleading. And while yes, they are funny, that's not what the movie's about. It's about a lot of things, too many to truly get into without spoiling the movie for others, but above all it's about that living a life worth living. (There's also the notion of self sacrifice, the impact of fiction, consequences, etc,. But this is the one I took with me).

Harold tries to figure out, with the aid of a literature professor (wonderfully played by Dustin Hoffman) if his life, the life being narrated to him, is a comedy or a tragedy. Harold judges this by his interactions with Ana Pascal (my occasional crush Maggie Gyllenhaal, making a strong case for me once again). Ana is a baker, running a bohemian (or was it anarchist?) baked goods shop, that is being audited by Harold. Naturally she hates him at first. Does he win her over? All I'm going to say is how he tries is equal parts hilarity and sweetness, without going over the top. (Also, him bringing her "flowers" is ingenious.

Soon enough, Harold discovers (as we the audience have) that his life is being written by Karen Eifel (Emma Thompson) a once great and prolific writer who now suffers from writer's block and smokes too many cigarettes, which she extinguishes with much disgust. With the help of an unwanted assistant provided by her publishers (Queen Latifah, who's always wonderful and whom I want to hug someday, but that's my own thing), Eifel needs to figure out how to kill off her protagonist. Karen, it should be noted, is unaware as to Harold's actual existence.

All the actors are top notch, never over playing their roles nor making them too ridiculous. Ferrell is the standout, though. Harold Crick is not a funny man, and he is not played as such. Will Ferrell plays the role for the laughs as much as he plays the pathos, the sad sack existence of his character. His journey is quite outstanding. There will be many comparisons to Jim Carrey and his work in The Truman Show, but Will Ferrell seems more natural in this role. The more apt comparison would be with Steve Martin in some of his more serious roles. Everyone in the cast is spot on, but this is Ferrell's movie, and without him working the movie falls apart. Thankfully, he holds it together and then some.

Directed by Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland, and the SUPREMELY underrated Stay), the film has a unique visual style that only sometimes draws attention to itself, yet never overshadows it. The visual interpretation of how Harold views the world is quite clever. And he also coaxes great performances from all. (I might have mentioned that a few times). The script, written by Zach Helm, mines the humor out of character, not situation. The premise is a bit out there, but it doesn't dwell on how "clever" it is. Instead it takes it as a leaping point, which is what those great Charlie Kaufman scripts also do. These films are grounded in reality, which makes their premises easier to swallow. The photography is quite good, capturing a never identified Chicago in a light I've never seen. Editing is good as is the music (provided in part by Britt Daniel of Spoon).

Stranger Than Fiction is not a raucous comedy along the lines of other Will Ferrell movies, but it is quite funny. It's also very sweet and oddly touching. It inspired a lot of good feelings in me that few movies do anymore. It's a great time all around.

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