The Junk Food of Writing

Monday, November 06, 2006

Stranger than Fiction (Forster, 2006)

In screenwriting, a clever idea is a very dangerous possession. It’s even more daunting when that clever idea is bizarre and otherworldly. Can the execution transcend the thought-provoking concept? In Stranger Than Fiction’s ambitious case, not really.


Will Ferrell wisely takes acting lessons from Dustin Hoffman behind the scenes.


Stranger Than Fiction
wears its ingenuity on its sleeve and is forcefully concerned with reasserting its attempted quirk and wit. It may be a playful exercise in self-conscious meta-narrative, but, ultimately, it’s perniciously shallow, even when searching to find depth in its typical themes.Most of the film is so preoccupied with reinvigorating the surface sharpness of its premise that it only flirts with its points on the nature of the narrative and the human condition. There’s no room for truly incisive commentary in this overstuffed production. The symbolic stand-in for humanity in Stranger than Fiction is the tightly programmed pawn, Harold Crick (a surprisingly tolerable and relatively restrained Will Ferrell).

Harold is disturbingly comfortable in his antiseptic, solitary world of suits and perfectly tied neckties. After 12 years of working for the IRS, he finds solace in uniformity and conformity. The modern architecture that surrounds him is metallic, ostentatiously geometric and very cold, reminiscent of Jacques Tati’s bleakly contemporary landscape in Playtime.

The imperious narrator explains that Harold is a man of “infinite numbers, endless calculations and few words.” As Harold brushes his teeth one Wednesday morning—counting each brush stroke—something abnormal occurs; Harold begins to hear a voiceover of his life. It accurately documents every move he makes and every thought he thinks. This omniscient voice belongs to Karen “Kay” Eiffel (a perfectly cast Emma Thompson), a chain-smoking, neurotic novelist who has not completed a book in nearly a decade. Karen is physically introduced into the film while standing on the ledge of a skyscraper, staring down at the pedestrians as they perform menial functions; she clearly represents a God-like figure, but she is unaware of Harold' human existence. This representation is pushed even further when the audience and Harold learn through her voiceover that she plans to kill off Harold Crick.

Troubled by his imminent death, Harold searches for an expert on literary theory, Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman, deftly playing the same basic role he did in I Heart Huckabees), and conveniently—and implausibly—begins a relationship with a counterculture baker he is auditing (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Harold even breaks a few rules and buys a guitar—this is Stranger than Fiction's uninspired way to depict Harold taking control of his life. It's shocking that he did not go for a red Porsche, also. Nonetheless, Harold's meaningless life is finally given significance just before he must face death. Isn’t it odd how that works out.

Although Stranger Than Fiction possesses a unique scenario, it is easy and helpful to describe it as a hybrid of two very successful pictures, Adaptation and The Truman Show. In comparison to Adaptation, it fails to amass the acumen on writing through Kay Eiffel that Charlie Kaufman provided in his script.It also lacks anything as enlightening as the Platonic allegory present in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show.

Stranger Than Fiction offers a brief, powerful statement about sacrificing one’s life to create an artistic masterpiece, but it too quickly glosses over this in favor of bland, self-aware charm. By the time Stranger Than Fiction begins to deal with the philosophical implications of its central concept, it bluffs and attempts to justify its contrivances while delivering a humdrum message. The film, along with Harold Crick, grapples with its magical realism. Soon it becomes apparent that this inventive idea is simply used to give context to trite philosophies on free will, fate and carpe diem. This platform is not the most solid one, either. Stranger Than Fiction is such an odd film to wrestle with, not because it fails while trying to challenge conventions, but because it flippantly treats Crick’s predicament as if it could easily exist in a realistic, modern society.

There’s no doubting director Marc Forster’s attempt to be eclectic—he previously directed the gritty drama
Monster’s Ball, the shamelessly manipulative Finding Neverland, and the convoluted psychological thriller Stay—but this diversity should not be mistaken for accomplishment, even if Stranger Than Fiction is his least heavy-handed production to date.

Despite its promisingly singular premise, Stranger Than Fiction is too broad and provides no new insight into the themes it tackles. Instead of including a challenging interpretation of fatalism and existentialism, it offers an anemic romantic subplot. Although the tepid conclusion revolves around life’s subtleties, Stranger than Fiction is unfortunately a stranger to nuance. The film provokes Harold to seize the day, but it should be more concerned with seizing its own original idea in an unexpected way.

5 Comments:

  • Very interesting. Can't wait to see this, and it's great that you're back! (Don't disappear now that I said that).

    By Blogger JavierAG, at 12:15 PM  

  • Ack, my school showed this as an advance screening yesterday. I would call it more heavy-handed than Finding Neverland; I thought that one at least had an appropriate sense of innocence. Dustin Hoffman's character even mentioned Italo Calvino for meta-lit. A sloppy, unfulfilling movie overall. Even Emma Thompson's performance began to irk me at the end.

    By Blogger Kathleen, at 9:15 AM  

  • Nice - I agree with you on a lot of counts, but what really hurt the film was one gaping plot hole that I'll discuss with you later on. But otherwise, I found the film surprisingly sweet and Ferrell actually solid.

    Maggie Gyllenhaal was awesome - she took that part and made it substantial. That monologue about the cookies? It was ridiculous, but I believed every word.

    By Blogger Ali, at 1:39 AM  

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger jefferson, at 5:30 PM  

  • You made some very valid points, but I disagree with your view on how it should have made an interpretation of exitentialism. There is no way it could have because the concept doesn't exist in this movie. The concept of existentialism is about Self reliance and individual essence, chosing your own path and basing your existance on the fact that there is no god. I thought it was a very good movie, but I can deffinetely see your point on other things

    By Blogger jefferson, at 5:30 PM  

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