16 February 2008

Stranger Than Fiction

Stranger Than Fiction Strange, but Good
By Kristin Battestella

As a writer, I was curious about Stranger Than Fiction the moment I first saw the previews. In this 2006 dramedy, funny man Will Ferrell (Blades of Glory) takes a serious turn as Harold Crick, a ho-hum IRS agent who begins hearing author Karen Eiffel’s (Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility) narration of his life. When Harold hears that his death is imminent, he vows to change his ways and find Karen.
Saturday Night Live alum Ferrell is a pleasant surprise in Stranger Than Fiction. The film is quirky and funny in parts, but Ferrell does just fine without slap stick and gross out stunts. It would seem he is the weak player here, considering the Oscar touched supporting cast of Thompson, Dustin Hoffmann (Rain Man), and Queen Latifah (a nomination for Chicago). Will Ferrell is however nearly exceptional here, a nod to the golly gee Jimmy Stewart Capra roles.
Of course, the support is exceptional as well. Dustin Hoffmann’s literature professor Jules Hilbert is intelligent and his methods believable-even though he is trying to help Harold figure out what story his narrator has him in. Emma Thompson is perfect as the neurotic British author obsessed with death, and Queen Latifah is a delight as Penny, the assistant guru sent by the publisher to cure her of her writer’s block. I wish there were more of their dry, odd couple conversations in the film. Perhaps the one miscast in Stranger Than Fiction is Maggie Gyllenhaal (World Trade Center) as Harold’s love interest/auditee Ana Pascal. She’s meant to be bohemian and fresh and quirky, but Gyllenhaal seems to have no weight, a cutout with no substance. She’s cute and talented I’m sure, but she just looks too wrong with Will Ferrell.
Stranger Than Fiction’s story and script from Zach Helm is unique there is no doubt, but towards the end, things begin to meander a little too much. The suspense of if Harold dies at the end of the book is enough. Some scenes debating this, however seem thin and dragged on. One potentially wonderful scene between Thompson and Hoffmann is wasted, but the ending is a good one. I like Emma Thompson in her period films, but I hate Jane Austen. Thompson won an Oscar for her adaptation of Sense and Sensibilty, but that’s another melodramatic, overlong movie. Odd to say I’m glad it wasn’t Thomson writing this film.
The confusing thing about Stranger Than Fiction is its genre. In the film the discussion is between comedy and tragedy, but just because this isn’t Ferrell’s standard physical comedy doesn’t mean that Stranger Than Fiction isn’t a comedy, though. It’s billed a drama but Thompson’s very British, dry death scenes are funny to me. Then again, is Stranger Than Fiction science fiction? It’s never explained how a real person came to be a character in a novel, so when the author and character meet, we must take the humorous leap of faith as is. If Stranger Than Fiction were structured differently, it could have become a lot of different things. The possibilities have you thinking about the film long after its over.
Stranger Than Fiction is the perfect movie for a family night or an intelligent critique group viewing. Youth who are wrongfully attracted to some of Ferrell’s gross out films will find this a pleasing alternative. Food for thought for any audience- now that is strange. 

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