Saturday, November 11, 2006

Stranger than Fiction

Recent film viewings include Talladega Nights, Borat, and Stranger than Fiction. The film I'd most like to note is the last one, Stranger than Fiction. Perhaps the primary impetus behind this post is the Metacritic score of Borat (89) vs. Stranger than Fiction (67). There's some sort of grave injustice in scoring Stranger than Fiction 22 points lower than Borat.

As far as story structure goes, Stranger than Fiction is multi-leveled, self-referential metafiction in a vein similar to the work of Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind) and the more recent metatale of Tristram Shandy.

The film casts Will Ferrell as Harold Crick, intentionally and appropriately the dullest character Ferrell's ever played by far. Many critics damn director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland) for underplaying Ferrell, but this clearly wasn't supposed to be a madcap Ferrell film; the character's dullness is crucial to the story. A typically zany Ferrell would have resulted in a different film altogether, and it certainly would have ruined this one.

The basic premise is one in which inconsequential I.R.S. agent Harold Crick (Ferrell) suddenly begins hearing the voice of Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a celebrated author coincidentally writing the tragic tale of a tax man's life. I don't want to hammer out any spoilers. This much is revealed in all the previews.

Needless to say, Harold is troubled by the prospect of having his life narrated to him by the mysterious British female voice inside his head, and solving the mystery provides the engine for much of the surface-level plot. In addition to Ferrell and Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhall and Dustin Hoffman offer up wonderful performances.

I believe it's true to say the more acquainted you are with literary theory, the more enjoyable this film will be. My wife teaches the subject, and I'm sure this will be one of her very favorite films of the year; it may even wind up being one of her favorites of all time. (That said, I enjoyed it immensely as well.)

If you know a deus ex machina when you see one, there are a couple more laughs in the film for you. So it goes with a quite a few other laughs, and so it goes with a number of great ironies (those who are irony-impaired will undoubtedly enjoy this film less than those who are irony-enabled).

That said, you don't need a degree in literary theory to enjoy the film, just a brain. This is where I think many critics fail to do the film justice. It's one thing to not like the film, but those who bemoan the demure performance of Ferrell without bothering to credit the film's puckish ironies and clever writing simply aren't doing it justice. It leaves me wondering if some of these critics missed many of the best jokes.

Roger Ebert got it: "Stranger Than Fiction is a meditation on life, art and romance, and on the kinds of responsibility we have. Such an uncommonly intelligent film does not often get made. It could have pumped up its emotion to blockbuster level, but that would be false to the premise, which requires us to enter the lives of these specific quiet, sweet, worthy people..."

(4 / 5)


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