Stranger Than Fiction [DVD]
Director : Marc Forster
Screenplay : Zach Helm
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Will Ferrell (Harold Crick), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Ana Pascal), Dustin Hoffman (Professor Jules Hilbert), Emma Thompson (Kay Eiffel), Queen Latifah (Penny Escher), Tony Hale (Dave), Linda Hunt (Dr. Mittag-Leffler)
Stranger Than Fiction is a better-than-average gimmick movie, one that takes a grabby, clever premise that would seem to have little weight and stretches it successfully over a feature-length story. The gimmick is that, one day, an ordinary man suddenly begins hearing a voice narrating his life, which he considers little more than a disturbing annoyance until one afternoon when the narrating voice declares that, “little does he know, his demise is imminent.” Thus, the need to discover the source of the voice goes from explaining the inexplicable to a race against a time--essentially taking the film from the realm of the goofy-abstract and placing it more squarely in the Hollywood tradition.
Stranger Than Fiction is strange that way. It is both a deconstructive meta-joke about the formulaic nature of even the best fiction and a crowd-pleasing heart-warmer that embraces formula, if in a slightly backward way. To call it Kaufmanesque would be too obvious, although first-time screenwriter Zach Helm and director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland) are clearly on Charlie’s wavelength and understand that what Hollywood needs more than ever are stories outside the expected. Stranger Than Fiction does not quite reach the glorious heights of Kaufman’s most delirious mind benders if only because it feels so thoroughly calculated to please; even when it’s messing with your mind and threatening to take its story to a place of logical conclusion--that is, tragedy--your never feel a real sense of danger.
As Harold Crick, the mild-mannered, routine-obsessed, number-crunching IRS auditor who hears the voice in his head, Will Ferrell is clearly making a bid for Jim Carrey-style crossover from animal comedy to smart dramedy. His performance is fine, although it’s really just subdued; Ferrell never gets deeper than the surface to convey the kind of emotional torture one imagines would be associated with knowing that one’s own demise is “imminent.” He seems comically panicked, but never really terrified. He is, though, infinitely sympathetic, a trait Ferrell has never had a hard time evoking. In this respect, his performance here is actually a notch below his roles in films like Old School (2003) and Anchorman (2004) in which he took obnoxious, cocksure characters and made them hilariously infantile while also suggesting that the very traits we found so funny were masking deep insecurities.
Harold Crick is the very opposite of Ferrell’s typical characters--he has no insecurities because he is perfectly content with his mundane, routine life. The voice in his head, which belongs to an eccentric, reclusive British novelist named Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), rocks him out of his daily stupor and forces him to confront his own mortality, which he does by embracing everything he had previously blinded himself to. (Throughout the film, we see Kay battling with writer’s block as she tries to decide what to do with Harold, and I kept wondering if the film would have been more powerful and mysterious if it had kept her off-screen until she and Harold literally met face to face, especially since her subplot really goes nowhere and utterly wastes the presence of Queen Latifah as her publisher-enforced assistant.)
Needing to break free of his conformist lifestyle of the previous dozen years, Harold first does what any movie hero would do by launching into a relationship with quirky-cute Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is in every way his opposite. Tattooed, extroverted, and confidently oppositional (she purposefully paid only 78% of her taxes, the percentage she calculated went toward government initiatives with which she agreed), Ana is everything Harold is not. If we can see why he would fall in love with her, it’s a bit more difficult to see what she sees in him, except the Hollywood mandate that opposites attract.
In many ways, Harold does not come across as a real character. He is more of a conceit than anything, defined entirely by unusual character traits, rather than simple humanity. Yet, what would seem to be the film’s primary weakness plays directly into a strength because it underscores the constructed nature of most movie characters. Just as Stranger Than Fiction rips open the conceits of third-person omniscient narration and the role of killing the protagonist for tragic effect, it makes us aware of just how little it takes to create a fictional character. In realizing that he is, in fact, a “character,” Harold becomes much more human, which allows him touching moments like the one in which he woos Ana by softly playing Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World” on the guitar in a slightly strained falsetto, all with his eyes tightly closed (we sense that it’s the only way he could make himself that vulnerable in the presence of another).
Explaining the film’s subtext and narrative conceits is left to Dustin Hoffman, who plays a literature professor named Jules Hilbert. After psychiatry fails him, Harold turns to Jules to find out why the voice in his head is doing what it’s doing. Jules attempts to narrow down who the narrator might be and, more importantly, what kind of a story she is telling. If Harold dies, then she is telling a tragedy; if he ends up getting hitched, it is a comedy. Although I can’t say I was surprised to see how the story did end, the film arguably earns it, albeit with a here’s-why-everything-is-important coda that feels torn from the final moments of an episode of Scrubs. And, of course, there’s always the presence of Jules, whose barely masked critical drubbing of Kay’s chosen ending (and thus the film’s) allows Stranger Than Fiction to jump the gun on its own criticism, essentially stealing the thunder from anyone who might take issue with it. Clever.
|Stranger Than Fiction DVD|
|Distributor||Sony Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||February 27, 2007|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|The anamorphic widescreen transfer of Stranger Than Fiction looks fantastic. The image is razor sharp and very clear, with excellent detail and strong color. The film has a particular look that contrasts austere scenes that are dominated by monochromatic colors (e.g., Kay Eiffel’s loft, the IRS office) with others that are much more earthy and multifaceted (e.g., Ana’s apartment). The transfer handles these differing visual textures extremely well. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is likewise superb. It gives the soundtrack a clean, spacious feeling, which also gives full play to the idea of the “omniscient narrating voice.”|
|Something tells me there is “Special Edition” waiting in the wings somewhere because I expected there to be more in the way of supplements. There is no audio commentary, but those involved in the making of the film show up in a number of featurettes, most of which hover around the 10-minute mark in length. In “Actors in Search of a Story,” the cast members talk about their characters and director Marc Forster discusses how and why each was cast. “Building the Team” focuses on the many technicians who worked to make the film, including the director of photography, production design, costume designer, producers, editors, and visual effects team, almost all of whom had worked with Forster before. “On Location in Chicago” takes us through all the various Windy City locations used in the film, most of which were extremely close to each other. “Words on a Page” emphasizes the originality of the screenplay, with the interview time given over primarily to producer Lindsay Doran and writer Zach Helm. Finally, “Picture a Number” looks at the film’s quirky visual effectsm while “On the Set” is a montage of amusing moments during the production (since the film stars Will Ferrell, you knew there had to be one of these). The section titled “Deleted and Extended Scenes” is a bit misleading because these aren’t scenes cut from the movie, but rather the full six-minute television interview of Kay Eiffel from “The Book Channel” that is used as a device within the film, as well as an unused Book Channel interview with a fictional author named Peter Alan Prothero (played by visual effects designer Kevin Tod Haug). Both are definitely worth watching as they offer some truly amusing moments courtesy of the inept interviewer played by stage actress Kristin Chenoweth.|
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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