Saturday, February 11, 2012

Better Than Adaptation, Stranger Than Fiction Is Not Strange Enough

The Good: Decent acting, Great story, More clever than funny, Decent directing.
The Bad: Plot is a bit weak, Resolution, DVD Extras are nothing stellar
The Basics: When literary character Harold Crick hears the narration of his life and understands his death is imminent, he sets out to find his author and change her mind.

In the last few years, Hollywood has opened up quite a bit to stories that employ alternative narrative techniques and/or bend the sense of reality of the viewer. The last few years have yielded films about writers and their characters, though after Adaptation (reviewed here!), I was wary about such films. Then I started to see previews for Stranger Than Fiction. After working through my fears that it would be as much of a letdown as Adaptation, I decided to give it a try. I had seen Marc Forster's previous directoral work, Monster's Ball (reviewed here!) and I felt that had bought me his trust just enough to give Stranger Than Fiction a fair shake.

Harold Crick is going about his mundane life working for the IRS with his wristwatch that has been feeding into his compulsions and sense of daily order when he begins to hear a voice. The voice is narrating his life and is foretelling of his imminent death. Harold suddenly finds his life spinning out of control as he becomes infatuated with an artistic tax evader, takes a vacation from work and searches for answers with the help of Professor Jules Hilbert, an expert in literature. Hilbert encourages Crick to determine whether he is a character in a comedy or a tragedy and they soon learn that he is the subject of famed recluse author Karen Eiffel, who is suffering from a nervous breakdown over killing off Harold at her publisher's behest.

Stranger Than Fiction is one of those movies that bends reality but never bothers to explain how or why it is happening. Harold Crick is a literary character existing in the real world such that he is able to interact with the author who is to kill him and yet is also at the whim of her typewriter. He is acknowledged as a character by those in the know, yet without Eiffel's narrations, he still exists and even has a measure of free will. It's one of those movies where the DVD extras (mostly previews and featurettes about the making of the movie) are not terribly exciting and not worth coming back to more than once.

Director Marc Forster does well with Stranger Than Fiction. It is original and between Forster's visual style that animates such things as Crick's counting steps and not telegraphing where the surprises are coming from visually and the generally strong script by Zach Helm, the film largely works. There is enough here to keep the viewer fairly consistently engaged throughout the movie.

First, though, those planning on seeing the film should be disabused of the notion that this is a comedy. Stranger Than Fiction is largely not funny. Helm wrote a script and Forster directed the work in a way that highlights the humanity and horror of the concept of killing a literary character. Harold Crick begins to live in utter dread once he learns of his impending death and his quest to find Eiffel and stopping her from killing him is one of desperation and fear. Are there lines that are funny? Yes. But more often, the film is serious and satirical in a way that is far more dramatic than comedic. Is that a problem? Not really, save that the previews make this look like it might be more a Will Ferrell comedy than it actually is. This is more analogous to the way Punch-Drunk Love fits into - or stands aside - the pantheon of Adam Sandler's movies.

In all, the biggest flaw with Stranger Than Fiction is not so much that it is not as funny as it appears to be in the previews, but rather that the dry tone accents a fairly thin plot. This movie can be easily summarized by the blurb "Literary character realizes he's about to be killed and tries to find his author to stop her." Despite the issues with reality versus fiction, this is a fairly simple plot that is dragged around for the almost two hours of the film. Fortunately, the film is paced well enough that that does not feel like forever.

Conversely with the plot, Harold Crick becomes an immediately likable and interesting character who the audience begins to empathize with. Crick is a man who is finally beginning to live when he learns his life is in jeopardy. He is vastly more interesting than Karen Eiffel and watching his journey becomes a real treat. In fact, Crick becomes so interesting that the resolution to the movie - which is surprisingly unpredictable - becomes somewhat a disappointment. Crick, though, is interesting to watch as he struggles to reconcile his existence with his desire to live, now that he is.

Crick is played off by Ana Pascal, a baker who is resisting government tyranny by not paying a portion of her taxes that pays for things she does not believe in. Pascal is smart and creative, which disrupts Crick's rather ordered world. The combination sounds hackneyed and cliche, but Forster makes it work. Professor Hilbert and Crick's coworker Dave flesh out the world created in the film quite well.

Stranger Than Fiction has a pretty impressive cast and it uses the cast quite well. Queen Latifah and Maggie Gyllenhaal give decent - though unchallenging - performances as Eiffel's editorial assistant and Crick's love interest, respectively. They are good, but nothing stellar. Dustin Hoffman gives what is essentially a supporting performance that is one of his more memorable ones as the serious and educated Professor Hilbert. Hoffman carries himself with the bearing and authority of a seasoned literature professor and his ability to take potentially dry exposition and sell it as organic dialogue in character is impressive.

Emma Thompson proves her acting ability in Stranger Than Fiction like she never has to me. Sure, her performance in Love Actually (reviewed here!) was heartwrenching, but that was because her character was so easy to empathize with and feel sympathy for. How I know Thompson is wonderful as Karen Eiffel is that I found her utterly repulsive. Yes, there was not a spark of the customary attraction to Thompson that comes when she plays a smart, strong woman. As Eiffel, she's a chain smoking, nervous wreck who is difficult to watch and virtually impossible to adore. As a result of how convincingly she sells us on how dismal her character is, Thompson reveals her acting genius.

Will Ferrell does well as Harold Crick. He takes the dramatic role with the requisite seriousness, never dumbing down the potentials of his character with his trademark comedic timing. Ferrell resists any urge to present the film as a straight comedy and it's astonishing how well he is able to pull off the desperation of the character who knows he is to be slaughtered. Ferrell redirects his usual physical comedy into physical control and an impressive range of emotional expression. He gives a performance worthy of watching.

Stranger Than Fiction is a nice change for those disappointed by Adaptation or any number of other films that involve writers bending reality, but it is mostly a straightforward movie that tells a real simple story. This is likely to disappoint those looking for an engaging comedy but bring in just enough for those looking to be entertained to actually enjoy.

For other works with Will Ferrell, please be sure to check out my reviews of:
Everything Must Go
The Other Guys
Land Of The Lost
You're Welcome America: A Final Night With George W. Bush
Step Brothers
Family Guy - Season 4
Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back


For other films, please be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page by clicking here!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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