The Reeler


November 10, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

Ferrell and Gyllenhaal lead a strong cast out of the meta-plot wilderness

There is a school of filmmakers and a sub-school of film devotees who feel that voice- over is film's device of last resort -- or simple directorial laziness --despite its occasionally exemplary use in films such as Days of Heaven or Mean Streets. It's tough to say where Stranger Than Fiction director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland) and first-time writer Zach Helm might land in that argument, but I suspect the anti-voice-over audience won't dismiss their efforts out of hand. In the first place, the film's narration is supplied by the rich and inviting voice of Emma Thompson, and her function as narrator is about as energetic as it gets. One never imagines the narrator, for instance, as a burnout in a bathrobe who eventually muses herself right onto the screen, nor that the character being described will actually prick up his ears, as Stranger Than Fiction's hero does, and tell the narrator to knock it off.

Both Will Ferrell as IRS agent Harold Crick and Emma Thompson as celebrated novelist Karen Eiffel are suffering a blockage; Harold's devotion to the reassurance of routine and precision is obsessive to the point of complete inertia, and Karen's novel-in-progress hit a snag 10 years ago that all the cigarettes in Casablanca couldn't smooth out. It becomes clear almost immediately that Thompson is narrating Harold Crick's every mundane toothbrush-stroke ("accurately, and with a better vocabulary" he says) because she is a little too good at creating her characters, and that we will follow both of the film's characters as they come to terms with whether the story will develop into a comedy or a tragedy.

When Harold catches on that his personal narrator intends to kill him, he seeks the help of a psychiatrist, who refers him to a literary theory expert -- a barefoot professor played with flatfooted charm by Dustin Hoffman. Ferrell is asked to play as straight as they come for his harmless blip of a man, so Hoffman gets all the ham, glazing it up with gusto in each of his brief scenes. He advises Crick to take control of the narrative himself and change his heavily regimented behavior at every turn; he comes to regret this advice when they figure out that Crick's narrator is one of the professor's favorite authors and that Crick's death might just render the book her masterpiece.

The parallel storylines of Crick, who takes up the guitar and falls for a tattooed bakery owner he's auditing (a winsome, defiant Maggie Gyllenhaal), and Eiffel, whose morbid forays into "research" are supervised by her publisher's heavy, played by Queen Latifah, eventually meet, and it's hard to say who is more unnerved by the experience. The interesting thing is that you may not have made up your mind yourself which ending you'd prefer; "It's no good unless you die in the end," Hoffman says, and it's true that by the book, anyhow, Crick's awakening to life's moveable feast of love, milk and cookies is ripe for a tragic blow. Ferrell's soft, baffled portrayal, as well as the lovely chemistry he shares with Gyllenhaal, however, might give the plain-fingered plucking of your heartstrings an edge over the aesthetic dirge your black old soul is craving.

Ultimately Stranger Than Fiction has a self-regard that can grate, most notably in the running time, which is at least 15 minutes too long, but Ferrell and Thompson give winning performances that suggest the film's aim is true. In a culture that seems to encourage people to star in their own lives rather than live them, any attempt to offer thoughtful alternatives to questions that have no answers --What can you control in life? Who has the reins? Are you a timekeeper or timewatcher? Will your story be a comedy or tragedy? -- sounds like a voice of reason to me.

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