Strong performances and an interesting-enough script make Stranger Than Fiction an enjoyable night at the movies

James Plath's picture

When I was in grad school, one of the students in a fiction workshop wrote a short story about a group of characters huddled in darkness, meeting while the author was sleeping in order to decide what they could possibly do to change their apparent fates. He wasn't the only one experimenting with authorial intrusion and character-author interaction. At the time, postmodernism was in full bogus flower, and it seemed as if everybody was writing playful and self-conscious "metafiction." So "Stranger Than Fiction" seemed like old stuff to me--20-year-old stuff, to be precise. And to butcher a famous quote from Gertrude Stein, "A gimmick, is a gimmick, is a gimmick." Still.

But I will say this: the concept of a person waking to the notion that he's a character in a novel--the way Kafka's hero woke one day to discover he had turned into a cockroach--is an interesting one. It's also not overly far-fetched if you compare it to anyone who's ever felt his/her life governed by a supreme being or life force, or if you consider how often authors say their that characters have taken on lives of their own or surprised them in some way. But it is a gimmick, and like "Click," one that comes with its own set of rules that tend to break down at some point in the film.

Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, and IRS auditor who is so methodical that he counts the number of times he brushes--flossing is another story. He sees numbers everywhere, emphasized by figures that pop up on the screen to show the way his mind works: kind of robotic, actually. Though he never becomes more animated, Crick's mundane life begins to change when he discovers that there's an English woman doing a voiceover narration of his actions and thoughts.

"All right, who just said, 'Harold just counted brushstrokes,' and how do you know I'm counting brushstrokes?" he demands. It's enough to make you paranoid, if all the IRS agent-haters haven't already pushed you over the edge. "Not now," he shouts later, when the narrator's voice starts to intrude at a who needs this time. It's to the credit of screenwriter Zach Helm and director Marc Forster ("Finding Neverland") that they don't linger too long in the anxiety zone, quickly moving Harold from an initial encounter with a psychiatrist to sessions with a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman) who's initially skeptical but agrees to help when Harold tells him the line that's most worrisome is, "Little did he know that this seemingly innocuous act would result in his death."

"Little did he know?" Professor Jules Hilbert perks up. "I've written papers on 'Little did he know,'" he says. "I've taught classes on 'Little did he know.'" And so he agrees to help Harold try to identify who the author is who's trying to do him in.

Meanwhile, just as Harold starts to take on a life of his own apart from the author's direction (and here's where the logic starts to stretch just a bit), the story comes to life with the introduction of a quirky, sexy, tattooed baker named Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal)-named, apparently, for the mathematician-philosopher who believed that our access to truth is limited by our own reason. All of the actors are wonderful, but with Ferrell and Hoffman playing it respectively low-key and deadpan, Gyllenhaal's warmth and energy really gives the film a much-needed shot of adrenaline. So too does Emma Thompson, who turns in a wonderfully believable performance as an eccentric, neurotic author famous for killing off her characters in creative ways. Fortunately for Harold, Karen Eiffel has writer's block. No amount of visualizing or pretending seems to be enough to enable her to come up with a wonderful way of killing him off. And that buys him the time to try to seek her out, confront her, and plead for his life.

More than Harold, the woman sent to Karen Eiffel by the publisher to "help" her seems a victim of plot, and Queen Latifah seems more bland and lackluster than usual in the role. Even Tony Hale ("Arrested Development") seems to do more with a much smaller part as Harold's best friend at the IRS. But the rest of the performances are superb--the kind that makes you want to re-watch the movie again, just to see certain scenes.

The screenplay itself is clever and interesting for the first two-thirds, but then questions intrude and we start to feel the heavy hand of the author of this script. Except for the energy that Gyllenhaal brings, "Stranger Than Fiction" is also surprisingly even-keeled, with no great number of ups and downs or crises that take the film significantly beyond the deadpan tone that predominates. But the screenplay is just interesting and clever enough that, combined with dead-on performances, makes "Stranger Than Fiction" entertaining. Gyllenhaal and Thompson are especially wonderful to watch.

"Stranger Than Fiction" is rated PG-13 for "some disturbing images, sexuality, brief language and nudity."

The 1080p picture looks great in Blu-ray, even more so with the 1.85:1 ratio stretching the film across the full 16x9 television screen. The colors seem 80-90 percent saturated, making everything look rich and vivid but not artificial. And the detail is superb, with sharpness in the middle distance as well as close-ups.

The English PCM 5.1 uncompressed audio is also impressive, with a full, natural-sounding bass and bright treble, with just enough rear-speaker action to make the viewing experience enjoyable.

The main extra is a seven-part documentary, "Artists in Search of a Story," which is divided up into short featurettes on "Actors in Search of a Story," "Building the Team," "On Location in Chicago," "Words on a Page," "Picture a Number," and "On the Set." All of them are engaging enough, but there's not much depth to them. It's as if they were made to run as pre-release promos. Also included are two deleted scenes and some on-set laughs.

In the film, Kristin Chenoweth plays an anchorwoman interviewing Karen Eiffel, and there are two complete practice interviews on "The Book Channel" with Kristin's character interviewing Thompson's in an extended segment, and also interviewing one of the crew members. Both phony interviews are hilarious to watch, and my absolute favorite bonus features on this disc.

Bottom Line:
Strong performances and an interesting-enough script make "Stranger Than Fiction" an enjoyable night at the movies, even if the logic breaks down in places and the ending feels disingenuous.


Film Value