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Stranger Than Fiction (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 10 November 2006
Even though it stars Will Ferrell, “Stranger Than Fiction” is a quiet, understated movie with a detailed treatment of characters—each is shown to have many levels—that’s just about impossible to classify. It’s funny but not really a comedy, serious but not really a drama, includes an utterly fantastic element but is otherwise realistic. It’s the first filmed script by Zach Helm; based on this, he’s a major find, a more realistic—if that’s the word—variation on Charlie Kaufman.

Ferrell’s performance is not quite like anything he’s done before; he’s a regular guy, nice enough but withdrawn from the world, shielded behind a wall of slowly-built but now near-impervious routine. Ferell does not play Harold Crick for overt comedy, he’s not trying to elicit laughter. Harold is just a guy.

He’s so caught up in routine, mathematics, charts, and everything being just so that director Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland”) has the graphs, charts, lists and other defining elements of Harold’s life literally depicted on screen, in animated, narrow white lines that clearly depict the fussy parameters of Harold’s self-restricted life.

He can immediately multiply two long numbers, he takes 4.7 minute coffee breaks and lunches just as proscribed. His favorite word is “integer,” and he is, not surprisingly, an IRS auditor.

We see him move through a typical day, never deviating from this narrow path which, somehow, gives him comfort because it gives him control, or at least the illusion of it. One morning as he’s brushing his teeth—always 78 strokes—he hears a woman’s voice, describing what he’s doing. Naturally, he’s nonplused, but not quite enough to alter his routine. But as he goes about his daily activities, his stride is thrown off as the narration continues (and the little animated lines fall to the pavement in thin clatters). No one else can hear it, and it does come and go—that is, it doesn’t describe everything he does.

He decides to continue his work. He visits Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) at her bakery shop; she refused to pay the 22% of her taxes that would go to national defense. Harold tries to explain everything logically, but she’s not working from logic—and Harold just can’t understand this.

Meanwhile, we also see a woman going to work, a father bidding goodbye to his young boy, who rides his bicycle around downtown Chicago streets with just a bit too much abandon. And we meet neurotic Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), an author who lives in an amazingly austere apartment—no decorations, no comfy chairs, all white. She has a white Selectric on a white table—and we see she is typing the very words that Harold is hearing. When efficient Penny Escher (Queen Latifah) arrives at Kay’s apartment, she reveals she’s been sent by Kay’s publisher to try to help her get over her writer’s block—she’s a famous author, but hasn’t turned in a book for ten years.
Meanwhile, Harold tries to defeat, or something, the ongoing narration by narrating his life himself, but that doesn’t accomplish anything but some puzzled looks from passersby. He sees a useless shrink (an utterly unrecognizable Tom Hulce) at his office, but finally winds up consulting with a literature theorist and college professor, Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman). Hilbert is somewhat interested in Harold’s case but, not unreasonably, assumes he’s nuts. But he throws himself into the task, first ascertaining that Harold doesn’t imagine himself to be a famous literary character in a published book—he’s not Frankenstein’s Monster, Miss Marple or the Golem, for instance.

Then Kay types that Harold will soon die. This is, not surprisingly, a shock to Harold. Hilbert says that if Harold’s book is a comedy, “you get hitched;” if it’s a tragedy, “you die.” He suggests that a lot of romances begin with the two central characters hating each other, so Harold begins trying to get close to Ana. At first, she’s not interested, but his bland earnestness starts to win her over.

In Hilbert’s office, Harold sees Kay on a TV show, taped ten years before, and recognizes her voice as his narrator’s. Too bad, says Hilbert; Kay, whom he hasn’t met, is a great writer, but in all the novels she’s written so far, her central characters die—just as they learn the meaning of life. So now Harold has to get Ana to love him, and he has to actually meet Kay Eiffel, who lives right there in Chicago.

“Stranger Than Fiction” is a very delicate movie, so much so that some may find it a bit boring, but I was deeply engrossed in the characters, all of whom are richly realized. Kay Eiffel may be a bit TOO richly realized—she’s wildly eccentric, putting out half-smoked cigarettes in tissues she’s spat into, then leaving the sodden lumps all over the place. She’s given to standing at the edge of the roof of her building, imagining plunging to her death. She also imagines swerving her car to miss a little boy on a bicycle and plunging into the river, again to her death. She is, in fact, entirely too focused on death. Although her boundaries are different and come from different impulses and mental tics, she’s as bound by her surroundings as was Harold—whom she is now allowing, in her novel, to emerge from his shell. (The movie dodges the obvious question of whether Kay’s novel is about a man who hears his life being narrated; I suspect the filmmakers felt that would fold the movie in on itself. But I’ll bet Charlie Kaufman would have tackled the idea.)

There’s something winsome about Will Ferrell’s performance; he’s never been this quietly ingratiating—heck, he’s never been this QUIET. As he follows Hilbert’s advice (sometimes quite literally) to just go ahead and live his life, stop allowing all those parameters to control him, Harold—and Ferrell—loosen up. He sees a Monty Python movie, and laughs; he buys a beat-up old electric guitar and tries to learn to play it; he brings Ana flours—that is, a set of different cooking flours—and slowly but surely, charms not only her, but himself.

Just as Ferrell is winsome, Gyllenhaal is elfin—but she’s a tough, streetwise elf, pretty angry at being audited to begin with, but as Harold goes over her receipts and invoices for the last several years one evening, she makes him some chocolate chip cookies. He never eats cookies, he says, because those his mother bought at the supermarket weren’t good. (It’s clear he really thinks he’s not entitled to cookies.) But Ana is wise enough to know that Harold needs the sublime pleasure of dunking a warm chocolate chip cookie in cool milk and eating it. It doesn’t work its magic immediately; Harold stays home for a while, obsessively watching very violent TV nature shows, with cute little fuzzy animals being killed by a big sharp-toothed animals left and right. He’s jolted out of this when a big wrecking claw suddenly eats his front room; a demolition team got the wrong address. (This is a witty and big-scale echo of the violent nature shows.) But it forces Harold to temporarily abandon his apartment and, for the first time in years, live with another person, a coworker from the IRS who’s even odder than Harold.

The movie comes out foursquare for simple, accessible pleasures, including love. (At the very end, it seems that perhaps this might even occur between Professor Hilbert and Kay Eiffel. And those people, like the kid on the bike, that we see from time to time also have their own endings.)

The movie is extremely rich in themes and subtexts; the script is as intelligently written as anything coming out of Hollywood in recent memory. It’s a little slow-paced, but that’s okay; it gives us time to savor the ideas and the likeable characters. It’s also about the process of writing, and what an author owes himself (or herself), and what is owed the reader. There are interesting recurring elements, such as busses. There’s a scene on a bus between Ana and Harold, made amusingly disorienting by their being seated on either side of the big rubber seam of a long city bus that flexes in the middle. This is a completely new idea, but Forster handles it like the pro he is.

The cast performs likewise. Hoffman also played a supporting role in Forster’s “Finding Neverland;” he was very good there, and he’s very good here, a breezy, intelligent man who’s sympathetic to Harold, but also just a bit too much in love with literature. Queen Latifah has a strong presence, as usual, but her job here is to be a sounding board for Kay Eiffel. Emma Thompson is sometimes just a bit too broad, but she gathers up the frayed edges of her performance by the end of the movie.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is perfectly cast as the dedicated baker who first set out to be a lawyer—she even went to Harvard law school, a background that flips Harold’s initial perceptions of her. She’s believably angry at Harold, and yet even from the beginning we can see her inquisitive fondness for him. Gyllenhaal is one of those rare actresses who look like a leading lady and perform like character actors.

The score consists of unusual already-recorded selections, plus new music by Britt Daniel and Brian Reitzell, and it’s all superb. The score is often eccentric, with somewhat jaunty music under serious scenes and vice versa; it’s so fluid and beautifully handled that it almost seems alive, or as if the movie was created to this music. It’s one of the best scores of the year so far.

The one probably unavoidable weakness is that we’re so accustomed to movies that are narrated it’s possible to occasionally forget that the character on screen, Harold, is hearing the narration just like we are—particularly after he becomes used to it, and so usually pays it little attention.

But that’s a very minor weakness. “Stranger Than Fiction” has a very clever premise, but the movie isn’t about the premise. It’s about understanding thoroughly that all we have in life is just a few relatively short years; we will live them better if we accept the small joys around us, if we bond with other wayfarers in life. Although some may find it too wispy to be involving, I think “Stranger Than Fiction” is one of the best movies of the year, and the first I’m eager to see again right away.

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