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"Stranger Than Fiction"


Not so strange, after all


Given its origins in chemistry and mechanism, and the illusory magic of its moving images, the cinema not only encourages but virtually demands experimentation with form and content. Despite the relative crudeness of their equipment, its earliest practitioners in fact played with such tricks as slow and fast motion, freeze frames, trick shots, various violations of the laws of physics --- in short, much of the magic that we now lump under the term "special effects." For almost as long a time, experiments in narrative accompany the technical wizardry, which accounts for the many films from the silent era onward that turn back on themselves, displaying a fascination with the process of character creation, plot movement, motion picture storytelling itself, resulting in a number of movies about making movies.

Although the writer, director, and producer of Stranger than Fiction cite a great many sources, from Pirandello to Homer Simpson, and employ the usual trendy, facile references to post modernism, the notion of a highly self-conscious work that demonstrates an awareness of its own artifice dates back several decades and includes not only film but prose fiction and even comic strips. Their purported experimentation with style and content in fact more closely resembles M. Night Shyamalan's summer flop, Lady in the Water, than Six Characters in Search of an Author.

In Stranger than Fiction Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick (many of the names refer archly to famous scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers), an auditor for the IRS, a predictably dull man in a hated profession who leads a crushingly humdrum life. At an early point in the movie Harold hears its female narrator commenting on his behavior, which understandably puzzles and, when the voice mentions his death, distresses him; he consults a psychiatrist, who sends him to a literary theorist, Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman). Hilbert determines that Harold's life follows the plot of a novel-in-progress, the work of Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), and the two of them must figure out if the book (and Harold's life) will end as tragedy or comedy.

In part because of his discovery of his function in the novel, Harold breaks out of the deep rut of his daily routine and falls in love with Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a baker whose tax returns he is auditing. While their relationship could possibly turn the story into comedy, Karen Eiffel's search for a way to kill off her protagonist threatens to make it a tragedy. In their several meetings, Hilbert analyzes the accumulating incidents in Harold's life, mentioning a number of other experimental writers, including Italo Calvino, and eventually convinces him to cooperate with the narrative voice and allow the story to unfold until it reaches its proper end.

Within and beside the story of Harold's life and his efforts to withstand the control of his "author," a couple of other, initially unrelated characters occasionally appear; caught in the machinations of the plot, they will show up together at the film's climax. Their presence underlines the artificiality of the narrative and the manipulations that cause the climactic events. They also serve to reaffirm the tenuousness of the distinction between tragedy and comedy, the sense that either form could result from the same concatenation of incidents and people.

Stranger than Fiction's self conscious combination of shallow cleverness and cute whimsy grows increasingly tiresome as the story develops and repeats itself over and over. The characters participate in no recognizable reality, which makes the novel that they in effect dwell in seem abstract and academic, the sort of fiction the writer enjoys more than the reader, the kind of work ground out in a thousand creative writing courses. The general lifelessness extends to the two lovers, a drab, uninteresting, and unattractive couple without so much as a gram of chemistry between them.

Whether intentionally or not, Will Ferrell seems as colorless as his character, utterly unconvincing as human being and as a fictional character. The cardboard characterization even extends to so accomplished an actor as Emma Thompson, who can only repeat the same gestures, the same grimaces, and apparently wear the same clothing throughout the picture. Dustin Hoffman manages to imbue his character, a most unbelievable professor, with at least a measure of droll and offhand pedantry, just about the only engaging element in Stranger than Fiction.

Stranger than Fiction (PG-13), directed by Marc Forster, is now playing at Culver Ridge, Pittsford, Henrietta, Webster, Tinseltown, Greece Ridge, and Eastview.