**/**** Image A Sound A Extras B
starring Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson
screenplay by Zach Helm
directed by Marc Forster
by Walter Chaw Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is a thinly-sketched IRS agent who obsessively measures out his life in coffee spoons. One day he hears the stentorian, patrician voice of his own personal narrator, reclusive author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), providing him an interiority with Douglas Adams-like serendipitous surreality. Marc Forster's Stranger than Fiction even winks at the Adams connection with a sentient wristwatch and a moment where Crick's apartment gets demolished, Arthur Dent-like, by an uncommunicated work order. It also features sudden, unexpected love at the end of the universe with Crick's opposite, a free spirit baker named Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who falls under the eye of Crick's glum audit and, as literature professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) informs Crick, only hates him until she loves him if Crick's narrator is writing a romantic comedy. The struggle within the film is the same as the struggle without, then, as Crick tries to determine whether or not Eiffel's calm (and, as it happens, excellently-written) exposition will result in his poignant death or--good for him, bad for us--in his resurrection as a bland, non-descript leading man in another piece too frightened to allow itself the most appropriate ending. One way leads to a surprise masterpiece that soars on the chemistry (surprise again) between Ferrell and Gyllenhaal--the other leads to a film that's a lot better than I expected it to be, weighed down by a resolution that it itself comments on as equivocal, cowardly, and disappointing. To crib the analysis of Prof. Hilbert, Stranger than Fiction is just "okay."
Stranger than Fiction paints itself into an obscure corner by being a comedy that will disappoint highbrow and lowbrow audiences equally while its virtues might be lost on the middlebrow, however reluctant may be to dismiss it offhand. As she struggles to determine the method of Crick's demise, Eiffel tells the story of seeing a picture of a woman who's leapt to her death and commenting on the beatific expression on her face while around her is arrayed a halo of her blood and broken limbs. When the movie recreates that image towards the end, it raises all manner of questions about life and the end of it--and, more, about art (and eternity) versus the relative smallness of an individual's day-to-day. (In that respect, it raises the spectre of John Frankenheimer's The Train, of all things.) What sacrifice is worth erecting a monument to art and immortality? There's a rhetorical question posed at the end of the film that if Crick goes willingly to his death in order to honour a work of great art, isn't he the kind of guy we should want to keep around? And the difficult answer is that his life has no greater significance if he doesn't--that Christ Himself would have a different profile had God levitated Him off the cross in the nick of time with a series of half-hearted contrivances and hand-wringing justifications.
The question arises as to whether knowing that it doesn't have the muscle to be exceptional excuses Stranger than Fiction from being disappointing and pandering--realizing at the same time that the only reason anyone would bother to ask the question is that the rest of Stranger than Fiction has proven so oddly affecting. Hoffman, grooved into existential detective roles now with this and I [Heart] Huckabees, turns in an effortless a pastiche of tenured urban professorship, and Thompson, pale and jittery, is fine as a writer stricken with a decade-long bout of writer's block. Both pull off the trick of conveying subtlety and complexity at the same time, but it's Ferrell and Gyllenhaal who do the Carrey/Winslet tango--their scenes together are alchemical. Forster's penchant for magic realism finds full flower in the Fight Club-inspired graphics detailing the course of Crick's obsessive counting (again simultaneously broad, subtle, and complex), while Zach Helm's screenplay is literate up to and including its pale resolution. Just as Fight Club never turned a profit, however, the great irony of Stranger than Fiction's equivocal ending is that it's not likely to be a box-office bonanza in its current form and that, lacking the courage of its convictions, it's also doubtful that the film will acquire a half-life as a flawed yet respected, oft-revisited cult classic in the mode of The Truman Show or, as it happens, Fight Club. It's a smart film indicated by a failure of nerve; a backhanded compliment to call it the first real disappointment of the season. Originally published: November 10, 2006.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Stranger than Fiction returns to Blu-ray in an inexplicable Special Edition double-dip from Sony. (Do we have the Will Ferrell or the Marc Forster cult to thank?) I don't own the previous disc, but it's my understanding that both its transfer and supplementary material were recycled, with Dolby TrueHD audio, two new commentaries, and some additional deleted scenes providing the re-purchase incentive. The yakkers--one with director Forster and stars Ferrell and Dustin Hoffman, the other with Forster, production designer Kevin Thompson, visual effects supervisor Kevin Haug, DP Roberto Schaefer, and producer Lindsay Doran--for the most part washed over me, the bizarre tangent in which Hoffman wonders aloud whether Queen Latifah would have been attracted to him if they'd gone to high-school together a glaring exception. Alas, the production challenges that were unique to Stranger than Fiction just don't sound very interesting from an outsider's perspective, and apart from the movie's influences (cinephiles will surely bristle at Forster's citation of Play Time as a major inspiration), that's all anybody on the second track, especially, seems interested in discussing.
The (SD) featurettes are moderately more engaging. In "Actors in Search of a Story" (19 mins.), dirty old Hoffman gets handsy with the script girl and Latifah gives ammunition to sketch comics everywhere in declaring that "Emma [Thompson] is the bomb!" And as much as I like Maggie Gyllenhaal in the film proper, her titanic ego is on full display here. "Building the Team" (9 mins.) reveals that Finding Neverland won Forster the Stranger than Fiction gig (well, that makes more sense at least than going from The Kite Runner to Quantum of Solace) and turns the spotlight on the picture's cinematography/er. "On Location in Chicago" (10 mins.) is about how the movie went from having a script with a non-specific setting to being discretely localized in the Windy Cindy, while "Words on a Page" (9 mins.) hears from screenwriter Zach Helm, who sadly does not discuss his conspicuous wristband tattoos, which as I recall officially symbolize the separation of his conscious and unconscious mind and unofficially symbolize that he's lived in Los Angeles too long. It's difficult to imagine a more poetic comeuppance for someone so pretentious (and precious, as when he turns a punny phrase like "Firing on all syllables") than the fact that he went on to, er, helm Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium.
Lastly, "Picture a Number: The Evolution of a G.U.I." (17 mins.) delves into the conception and implementation of the onscreen graphics that occasionally track or wryly comment on Harold Crick's movements in Stranger than Fiction. As for the half-hour of deleted scenes (nine in total, seven of which are in HD), they mostly consist of interminable outtakes that are the product of Forster conducting impromptu improv-workshop exercises in an effort to spice up deceptively flat exchanges. It yielded no usable footage that I could see, just a lot of fish-like thespians flopping around gasping for air. Did Forster try this on Quantum of Solace? "Okay Daniel, you are a poodle. And Olga, you have just found a fly in your soup. Go!" I suppose I understand the mad-scientist urge to exploit a gifted cast, but it reflects poorly on Forster, a guy who can barely speak English, that he would have the chutzpah to stomp all over Helm's meticulous-feeling dialogue like Godzilla. As for the film itself, it looks terrific, not at all dated by the old MPEG-2 encode. Though the 1.85:1, 1080p image is largely grain-free, I suspect this was worked out in post between the G.U.I. and the digital intermediate and is not a consequence of noise reduction at the telecine level. It's drably perfect, a bit of negligible colour-banding in low-lit shots aside. The accompanying 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track exquisitely reproduces an undistinguished soundmix. Previews for Talladega Nights and Lakeview Terrace round out the disc. For what it's worth, I've seen better fan art than the new cover's Photoshop mashup. Originally published: December 1, 2008.