07 March 2007

Stranger than Fiction

Directed by: Marc Foster
Written by: Zach Helm

Grade: B-

Poor Harold Crick has a problem—he knows he’s going to die. Well, I suppose we all have that problem, but the essential difference is that he's the main character in a novel by Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson, who has a lovely voice), only he thinks he's a real person, not a narrative device; maybe he is, it's hard to say, and the sloppiness in the specifics just needs a little good old suspension of disbelief. As Kay struggles to overcome a decade of writer's block to finish her novel, Harold becomes conscious of her voice elegantly narrating his actions. Sounds like schizophrenia, or some pretty quirky cinema.

One could read his ability to hear "the voice" as a psychotic manifestation of his loneliness; and when "it" mentions that he’s going to die, it's only after he meets a girl he likes, Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and we could easily see it as an expression of his fears of rejection and intimacy. After all, Harold is not very sociable; a numbers man more than a people person, he’s an IRS agent, for Heaven's sake, who obsessively counts his brushstrokes in the morning and the number of steps to the bus stop.

Or, we could take it on its gimmicky face and, unfortunately, ultimately I think we have to. It’s too bad, because the romantic comedy, stripped of all of its metacinematic, or perhaps metaliterary, comments on the relationship between character and author, is surprisingly strong. Somewhere underneath the not-always-successful superficial trappings is a very charming romance.

I usually go for this kind of postmodern shit, but a lot of Stranger than Fiction doesn’t really work: Dustin Hoffman’s, as Professor Hilbert, discursions on literary theory and the nature of storytelling are a bit heavy handed, Ifill’s scenes with her new assistant, Queen Latifah, fall flat, and the conceit of author as deity is uncomfortably aggrandizing, not to mention that it smacks of a cheap device Helm conceived in order to conquer his own writer’s block. (There’s also a very intrusive musical score.) But Stranger than Fiction does modestly succeed on some level, thanks if nothing else to the chemistry between Ferrell and Gyllenhaal; Ferrell, doing his own Punch Drunk Love/Truman Show thing, for once in his life plays the straight man, whether it’s to Hoffman’s caffeinated academic or Gyllenhaal’s manic, anarchist baker, and he’s very good at it. As a tribute to the virtues of comedy over tragedy, and of life over death, it’s the rare movie whose happy ending I genuinely rooted for, just not at all the points along the way.

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