Stranger Than Fiction Review
Stranger Than Fiction tells the tale of Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), a mildly autistic auditor for the IRS who lives his solitary life to clockwork precision. One day while brushing his teeth the usual 78 times he begins to hear a voice (Emma Thompson) describing his actions, a voice which continues to follow him everywhere he goes narrating everything he does. While most of us would instantly head for the local shrink, Crick swiftly realises that what he’s hearing is someone else writing a novel featuring him as the central character, a belief reinforced when he starts hearing details about his life that he himself doesn’t know. Worried about what it all means and what this mysterious narrator has in store for him, he enlists the help of Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), a teacher of literature at the city’s university, to work out exactly where his story is heading and what, if anything, he can do about it. Meanwhile across town renowned author Karen Eiffel (Thompson in the flesh) is struggling to finish her first novel in ten years, Death and Taxes, a novel about a mildly autistic auditor called Harold Crick who is only days away from a sudden and tragic death...
Marc Forster's latest effort is the latest entry into what is becoming an increasingly common genre, the self-aware movie. In the past decade two films in particular have come to dominate the theme, namely Peter Weir’s The Truman Show and Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. Both skilfully played with narrative convention and challenged its viewers, with the former making the audience complicit in the deception of the lead character - and, ultimately, his voyage of self-discovery - the latter wittily blurring the lines of reality and fiction in an exploration of both narrative technique and the relationship between character, author and viewer. Although strikingly different films, both were at times profoundly insightful about that relationship - indeed, Weir’s film is an out-and-out masterpiece - and any film daring to tread similar ground has some very large shoes to fill. In that regard, sadly, Stranger Than Fiction fails dismally. A veritable minnow against the great white whales of the afore-mentioned pair, ultimately it comes across like a Kaufman script with all the wit and intelligence drained away, leaving a dried-out, hollow husk behind.
Not only does the film fail to confront the many questions its very premise raises, half the time it doesn’t appear to even appreciate that such issues exist. Crucially it squanders its central tenet utterly in failing to establish any sort of relationship between Crick and Eiffel, character and creator. For the majority of the film Eiffel treats Crick’s demise as a purely intellectual exercise, pacing around her environs in the search for the perfect method of killing him off. For an author who apparently infuses her books with so much character, she is clinical about her leading man, and even after she meets him and realises the real life consequences if she does finish the book as she intended - ie, Crick's death - her distress is as much for the theoretical moral dilemma the situation poses rather than any real empathy for the man himself. Meanwhile on his part Crick is remarkably sang-froid about the whole thing; while he loudly chastises Eiffel’s voice in his head, and is understandably scared stiff when he learns what his fate is to be, he holds no animosity towards her as the person who put him in that situation, and seems relatively uninterested in how she came about creating him. He asks few questions about her, showing only a surface-level interest in his plight.
Indeed, in general the fact he is perhaps purely a fictional construct distresses him surprisingly little. At no point does he suffer from existential angst or ask any of the questions we perhaps would if we found ourselves in that position: Am I real? What is my role in life? Is Eiffel my God? The question of free will is raised, and in a scene which appears purloined from The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To the Galaxy he learns that his destiny is purely in Eiffel’s hands, but does he try to escape from it? Nope, instead he uses it to cut loose, and change his life in a way not dissimilar to Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Whereas Murray made himself a better person, Crick becomes more human, and in the spirit of someone who has been given a liberty based on the fact he is not responsible for his own actions, breaks out of the shackles of his restricted lifestyle and starts chasing his dreams. On the surface this means the Narrator serves as nothing more than a simple motivation he wouldn't otherwise have had, while as far as the Big Questions go, Zak Helm’s screenplay copouts completely, and half the time doesn’t even seem aware of the implications or possibilities the scenario engenders. As such it's a thematically barren film, one which contributes nothing, which is quite a feat for a premise like this - even minor entries into the genre, such as The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse, created a better byplay between creator and character.
But no, instead the film boils down to a completely banal, clichéd love story dressed up to look like something it isn’t. At one point Hilbert tells Crick that the novel in which he stars is a “masterpiece.” Anyone walking in the vicinity of my sitting room while I was watching at that moment might have heard a loud snort of derision coming from my chair. I can tell you plainly, Death and Taxes is not a masterpiece. Its prose is light and frothy, the plot second rate and comes with a lead character not sufficiently interesting to merit ploughing through three hundred pages. Get this: he’s an uptight, reclusive loner who meets a sparky girl, Ana Pascal, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. They hate each other then fall in love with each other. Crick is inspired to change his life, learning to play the guitar and interact with other people, and then, just as his life is perfect, he’s killed in a freak accident. The End. That’s her book, and nearly what happens in the movie. To be fair, this typical tale is told on purpose, with characters fully aware of the archetypes they are going through - in one scene, Crick even analyses his encounter with Hilbert to find out exactly which archetype he’s living through - but awareness on its own is not enough to sustain it. If you say “Hey, here’s a story you’ve heard a million times before, but it’s okay, because the characters are going to point out themselves you’ve heard it all before” it still doesn’t excuse that story, unless you either have something new to add to the formula or tell it in a particularly appealing way. Stranger Than Fiction's by-the-numbers approach does neither.
Given the paucity of challenging material, the stars do their best, with Ferrell showing he can do restraint as well as any Jim Carrey, although as he’s hampered by an under-developed lead character he doesn’t get the chance to flex his actorly muscles as much as he must have hoped. His relationship with Gyllenhaal is slightly creepy in that older-man younger-girl kind of way, not helped by the fact he really does appear to be stalking her near the beginning, watching her surreptitiously through her shop window and possibly compromising his job in an attempt to get closer to her. However, they do have reasonable chemistry, but that’s more down to Gyllenhaal, a perky performer who could probably have chemistry with a large stone if she was asked to. Indeed, in general the women come off better than the men; while Emma Thompson’s gaunt, make-up-less tortured artist is a cliché, at least it’s a cliché she does well, and the contrast between her and her assistant (a nothing role played by a wasted Queen Latifah) provides a pleasing counterpoint to Ferrell and a honing-it-in Hoffman.
This is easily Forster's least satisfying film to date, but he compensates for the script's shortcomings with his pleasing visual style which continues to impress. He's at his best during the earlier scenes dealing with Crick’s mundane existence. with the most striking part of the film is the so-called GUI showing Crick’s OCD-thoughts - we see him counting the number of times he brushes his teeth, for example, or doing long multiplication in his head - and it’s a shame that as the film proceeds this, given Crick’s changing personality, disappears (although perhaps it’s as well we don’t see his thoughts when observing Gyllenhaal). (It’s also complemented by the unusual score by Britt Daniel and Brian Reitzlee, which sounds somewhat like the soundtrack to an early Nineties Sierra adventure game but which works nonetheless.) The director's decision to shoot predominately in real-world settings as opposed to the confines of a soundstage provide a nicely different look to a more studio-based picture, although there’s a coldness to much of the scenery - illustrated by Eiffel’s starkly barren office - which is off-putting, and only relieved in the warmth of Ana’s bakery. Indeed, the fact that the sets often feel so empty is entirely fitting because the film as a whole feels empty. Ignoring or unable to face the central posits of his script, Helm apparently throws in many ideas without having the slightest clue what to do with them, his vaguely intriguing first hour quickly dissolving into Hollywood formula in the second. The occasional quirks, such as naming the leads after famous scientists and mathematicians, are just that, quirks with no substance (although the denouncement, in which it is revealed that Eiffel’s novel is not about Crick so much as his wrist watch, is admittedly amusing) and in the end one comes away at the end feeling that one has just seen a first draft treatment rather than a fully rounded screenplay, a skeleton to hang better things on rather than a fully-fleshed out individual. Satisfying as neither a straight-forward romantic comedy nor as a playful dialogue between author and character, it is saved only by Forster's style and the relative charm of the leads. But stranger than fiction? Nope, all-in-all it's pretty bog standard actually. Disappointing.
Before getting to the Main Menu, trailers for Premonition, The Holiday and Casino Royale. play out, although fortunately they can all be skipped instantly by pressing your Menu button. The Main Menu itself opens with a very short summary of the film’s plot via the GUI before settling into a montage of clips of the film with the menu items, also using the GUI, at the bottom. The options are Play Movie, Languages, Scenes, Extras and Previews (which include the three above plus The Pursuit of Happyness, Talladega Nights, Marie Antoinette, Bewitched and this film’s soundtrack). The Extras Menu divides into further Sub-Menus with the featurettes, deleted scenes and previews which is fine, except the featurettes could have done with a Play All function.
The film itself is divided into twenty-eight chapters and is subtitled although none of the extras are.
There's a fair amount of edge enhancement to be seen on the transfer, and brighter-lit scenes suffer from the odd encoding shortcoming, but colours are nice and clear and the clean look of the film comes across well.
A fine but unthrilling audio track that does exactly what it sets out to do. Hardly a film to excite your sound system, this is still clear and vivid.
Actors In Search of a Story (18:37)
Mildly dull featurette in which we go through the film’s cast actor by actor, with discussion from both themselves and others about their character and contribution. Starts to scrape the barrel when it devotes time to talking to actors who only appear in one scene (although isn’t Linda Hunt like Edna Mode?).
Building the Team (8:32)
The companion piece to the above, this time focusing on the behind-the-camera team. Moderately more interesting than the above.
On Location in Chicago (10:30)
This featurette highlights the surprisingly small area of Chicago in which the majority of the film was shot, with crew talking about how they went about finding and dressing appropriate places, while a member of the Illinois Film Office understandably talks up her town. Okay.
Words on a Page (9:28)
Possibly the best of the featurettes, in which Helm discusses the themes he wanted to explore in the film and what he was trying to say. Would have worked better as a commentary though.
Picture a Number: The Evolution of a GUI (17:12)
The GUI being arguably the only memorable thing about this film, it’s unsurprising it gets a featurette to itself. Unfortunately that featurette is twice as long as it needs to be and there’s a lot of rambling from the main interviewees not saying very much.
On the Set (3:00)
Montage of mostly silent clips of larks during the shoot set to some funky musak. Note to the dancing people: please don’t do that in front of a camera again. It’s just embarrassing, for you and your families.
Deleted and Extended Scenes
The highlight of the disc. A couple of times during the movie we catch glimpses of a Book Channel Hilbert watches in his study, and for these segments comedienne Kristen Chenoweth was called in to record some semi-improvised interviews. Her characterisation of “Darlene Sunshine,” a typically dumb, insincere, plastic presenter, is highly amusing, and here we get to see two of those interviews in full. The first, with Emma Thompson, sees the two women playing off of one another (remembering that Thompson herself started her career in comedy) and is great fun (6:29) while the second (running to 4:56) sees Visual FX Designer Tod Haug doing a turn as another fictional author and is enjoyable mainly because Haug, apparently playing himself, seems to be a bit of an Eccentric, which is always good news. If only more of these had been seen in the film itself it would have enlivened things up considerably!
A pretty good package for a disappointing film. The featurettes are sufficiently lengthy and detailed to cover thoroughly the making of the film, although they are all (like the movie itself) deeply conventional: if you've seen umpteen Makings-Of before, and don't have an abiding interest in this particular production you might grow bored. The lack of a commentary is disappointing - it would have been interesting to hear Helm expand on his comments in the featurette - but if you do get a hold of this disc, if nothing else make sure you check out the Deleted Scenes. Other than that, a totally forgettable package.