Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/10/06 00:15:09

"Five Characters In Search Of A Point."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

“Stranger Than Fiction” is a film with an initial premise that is so intriguing and seemingly sure-fire that you may find yourself wondering why no one else ever came up with it before. After about a half-hour or so, however, you’ll realize why–it is a premise that sounds great when you first hear it but which immediately falls to pieces the moment you begin to apply even the slightest bit of thought to it. As a result, a film which sounds like an appealingly trippy mind-bender of a film quickly devolves into a confused and unfocused mess that feels like a remake of “Adaptation” made be and for people who didn’t quite get “Adaptation” but wish that they did.

Will Ferrell stars as Harold Crick, a numbers-obsessed IRS agent whose life is as drab and uninvolving as his name. One day, Harold wakes up and begins to hear a voice of a British woman narrating and commenting on his daily activities. Of course, no one else can hear the voice and Harold finds himself being driven to distraction as his every move and thought is pontificated on in detail. Eventually, he becomes convinced that he is the character in a book and that the voice he is hearing belongs to the unknown author. With the help of literature professor Julius Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), Harold tries to figure out who the author is–a quest that becomes increasingly important when the voice reveals that he is going to be killed off at the end of the story.

Even though Harold hasn’t exactly led a full and rich life, he certainly doesn’t want to die, especially after beginning a tentative romance with spunky anarchist baker Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and when he discovers that the voice belongs to reclusive writer Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), he pays her a visit begging her not to kill him off. Problem #1–Kay is in the middle of a massive case of writer’s block and can’t figure out how to kill him off. Problem #2–Hilbert, who just happens to be an Eiffel scholar, reads her new manuscript and decrees that a.) it is indeed a masterpiece and b.) the only way that the story truly lives is if Harold doesn’t.

For months, the screenplay for “Stranger Than Fiction,” penned by first-timer Zach Helm, has been receiving glowing praise and publicity but unless the final film has mutated strongly from what was put down on paper–and I am presuming that it hasn’t–I cannot understand why so many people would be heaping accolades on a script that fails so completely on the most basic narrative level. Essentially, if the premise is to work, it means that either Harold is indeed a fictional character and that everything around him is part of her imagination or that he is a real person who has suddenly convinced himself that Kay indeed controls every aspect of his life. If the former is true, then there needs to be some explanation as to how he became self-aware and made the leap from print to reality and if the latter is true, there needs to be some explanation as to why he thinks that his life is in the hands of someone that he has presumably never met. In either event, someone also needs to explain how anyone could possibly believe that a book about a boring IRS agent named Harold Crick could possibly wind up becoming the Great American Novel in the first place.

The trouble is that neither Helm nor director Marc Forster seem to have actually sat down to figure out which it is and settle for an approach that switches off between the two seemingly at random without ever settling on a conclusive answer. I know, I know–“Stranger Than Fiction” is clearly a fantasy and it doesn’t need to be concerned with reality. Yes, but even the wildest and most head-scratching fantasies–at least the good ones–have some kind of basic internal logic that they introduce at the beginning and stick with throughout. For example, think back to Woody Allen’s 1985 masterpiece “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” Like “Stranger Than Fiction,” it was a film in which fiction and reality collided in unexpected ways (a character from a 1930's movie literally walks off the screen and into the life of a movie-mad Depression-era waitress) but Allen took the time to establish his premise and then maintained the internal logic of that premise throughout. By comparison, “Stranger Than Fiction” just seems as if it is making things up as it goes along and the effort of trying to make sense of it all becomes so great after a while that most viewers will throw up their hands in defeat without caring a whit about what happens to Harold one way or another.

Although Hoffman, Thompson and Gyllenhaal are charming and entertaining enough in their supporting roles (although Gyllenhaal is saddled with one monologue–something about baking for her former classmates at Harvard Law School–that is so awful and goes on for so long that the entire film dies for a few minutes as it plays out), much of the film rests on the shoulders of Will Ferrell and he is unfortunately just not up to the task. Like too many comedians before him who have attempted to make the transformation to Serious Actor, he seems to have confused “serious” with “somnambulistic” and turns in a performance that makes him seem like a refugee from a George Romero epic. I’m not saying that he needed to do his Ron Burgundy schtick and I give him credit for at least trying to do something new but his work is so lackluster and devoid of life (aside from the bits in which he screams at the voice in his head in a way that allows the studio to cut a trailer that makes the film look wackier than it is) that it drags everything around him down with it.

“Stranger Than Fiction” is a mess from start to finish–don’t even get me started on the inexplicable presence of Queen Latifah as a woman who has been hired by Thompson’s publishers to help her overcome her block (as someone who has occasionally been at a loss for words, I can guarantee that while there may be many ways of getting the creative juices flowing, sending Queen Latifah to dog you around the clock is most certainly not one of them)–but the worst thing about it is that it plays like an attempt to ape the works of Charlie Kaufman by someone who knows the words (or an approximation of such) but not the music. Yes, Kaufman’s screenplays (including “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) have featured head-spinning central conceits but his real genius lies not in coming up with those way-out ideas but in the ways that he uses those way-out ideas in order to comment on such universal concerns as love, loss and personal identity. “Stranger Than Fiction” lacks that emotional resonance and winds up becoming a self-satisfied bore that is nowhere near as smart, thoughtful or funny as it so clearly thinks that it is.

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