Friday, March 2, 2007

Stranger Than Fiction

Director: Marc Forster
Starring: Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, Tom Hulce, Linda Hunt
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 113 min.

**** (out of ****)

Over the past couple of weeks I've had the opportunity to watch some Oscar nominated films and review them. Two of which I even gave four stars to. They deserved four stars, but it was based primarily on technical achievement. When they were finished, I admired and respected the work that went in to to them even if they didn't reach me on a personal level. They kind of get what could be considered a "golf clap" from me. They earned four stars no doubt about it, but I'll be honest and say I'll probably never watch either of them again.

So, what does Stranger Than Fiction have in common with this year's Best Picture Oscar nominees? Absolutely nothing, because it's better than all of them. When I watch a movie I want to laugh. I want to cry. When it's finished I want to eject a disc out of my DVD player knowing I experienced a film that tells us something about ourselves and makes us think. Stranger Than Fiction is a tragedy, a comedy, a romance and a coming of age tale all rolled up into one

Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is an I.R.S. agent stuck in what could be called a routine. He wakes up every morning to the alarm on his perfectly synchronized Timex watch, counts the exact number of brushstrokes as he cleans his teeth, catches his bus at the exact same time every morning, counts his steps on his way into the office and takes a perfectly timed thirty second coffee and forty five minute lunch break every day. It's time efficient. In actuality, he leads a painfully boring existence, but that doesn't really occur to him. It wouldn't since those immersed in their routine rarely stop to consider if they're bored or not, or more importantly if they're even remotely satisfied or happy. 

Things change for Harold one morning when he's brushing his teeth and hears the voice of a woman with a British accent narrating everything he's doing. What he doesn't realize yet is he's the main character of the comeback novel of author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a chain-smoking, suicidal recluse with a bad case of writer's block. She can't seem to find a way to kill Harold Crick and her publisher has hired her an assistant (Queen Latifah) to get her out of her funk.

Meanwhile Harold seeks help from a psychiatrist (Linda Hunt) who tells him he has schizophrenia and renowned literary professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) who tries to get to the bottom of whether he's in a tragedy or comedy. On top of this he finds he must audit the tax return of Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a free-spirited, tattooed bakery owner who hates Harold because...well, he's an I.R.S. agent. You're supposed to hate I.R.S. agents. A funny thing happens. He starts having feelings for her and bumbles his way through many of their encounters, consistently embarrassing himself. That doesn't matter though. What matters is that for the first time Harold is actually feeling something and must come to terms with it in the face of his "iminent death" at the hands of Eiffel's story.

How he handles the news he's about to expire is surprising and touching, taking the story in new directions and affecting everyone around him, especially the author. It's a movie about an awakening, not just for Harold but for everyone in his story. Kay Eiffel's book within the movie forces Harold to take action and be become, for the first time, driving force of his own destiny. It forces the other characters in his life to examine how he's affected him and delivers a message (without pounding us over the head with it) that everyone is important and every moment matters. This is especially true of the ending, which is pitch perfect. Some may complain it's a cop out, but how can it be? It ends the only way it can because the characters who are part of this story choose for it to. It's earned.

Zach Helm's script joins Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation and Being John Malkovich as the most original, intelligent screenplays to come along in a while. I always thought what separates a good movie writing from a great movie writing is the care taken with the supporting characters. It's tough giving each of them a life of their own but Helm does it, and Forster (aided by perfect casting) directs each of them to magnificent performances that fill every frame of this motion picture with humor and uncontainable energy. All the decisions made in the film make sense and are based on what these people would do, not dialogue a writer has written for them.

We believe Harold would take the advice of this looney English professor Hilbert because he's smart and his advice is surprisingly good. He might be crazy, but he's right. And what a joy it is to see Dustin Hoffman, for the first time in what seems like forever, in a great role that fits him. He works so little and is given so few opportunities to show what he has that we often forget he's still one of our most treasured actors. I loved how the care was taken to make the narration of Harold's life interesting and funny, giving us the impression that if this was a real book it would likely be a bestseller. Those only familiar with Emma Thompson as a dramatic actress will find themselves surprised at her dry wit and comic timing as Kay Eiffel, especially the way she plays off Queen Latifah's character. No one in the story is as deeply affected by Harold Crick as she is. In a way, he's part of her.

For me, one of the biggest surprises of the film was how well it succeeds not only as a morality tale, but as love story. On paper Gyllenhaal and Farrell seem like the weirdest pairing imaginable, but every scene they share together in this movie is a joy to watch. Her part's relatively small, yet she really brings a realistic quirkiness to it while still conveying an intelligence that lets you know she always knows what's going on. If Harold wants her, he has to earn it and she's not making it easy for him, nor should she. If anyone needs to be challenged, it's this guy. Their relationship develops organically and isn't forced on us by strange coincidences or plot contrivances. The chemistry between the two are electric, especially in a memorable scene where he plays guitar on her couch.

If you're going into this film looking for traces of Ron Burgundy or Ricky Bobby, you won't find any of it in Will Ferrell's performance. He's shy, reserved, restrained and introspective. Everything you wouldn't expect from him. In many ways he's perfect for the part because upon first glance he's amazingly ordinary in terms of looks and appearance. He's an everyman you'd believe wakes up every morning to a stagnant, boring existence. Yet, when the story and Harold's life kicks into high gear Ferrell turns it up to just the right level. Lately many comedians have tried to stretch their acting muscles in more dramatic fare. This should rank as the most successful attempt and if the Academy ever stepped outside the box every once in a while I think they'd notice Ferrell's work was nomination-worthy. However his own skit on the Oscar telecast jokingly acknowledged his chances of a comedian ever being nominated for anything. Now that might really be a tragedy.

I'm actually very amazed, but relieved that a movie like this could be released by a major studio. I'm also surprised a movie could take a premise as promising as this and not squander it somehow. It's such a high concept, the film was almost destined not to live up to it. But director Forster knew the premise he had and was determined to have it cross the finish line in one piece. The film's been compared endlessly to 1998's The Truman Show about a man (Jim Carrey) unwittingly starring in a t.v. show about his life. That was an incredible movie, but it rarely touched on as many issues as this. With all the sequels and remakes being vomited out by Hollywood these days I sometimes wonder if there are no more new ideas and every story has been told. A movie like Stranger Than Fiction proves that isn't the case and reaffirms our faith that the well of creativity hasn't run dry yet.

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