Friday, November 10, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

Billed as a comedy, the new Will Ferrell movie does have its share of laughs; but at bottom, it’s quite a bit darker than the trailer would have you believe. A writer (Emma Thompson), whose novels always seem to end with the death of her hero, is suffering writer’s block as she tries to figure out a way to off her latest hero, Harold Crick (Ferrell). Little does she know that her latest character is actually a real person, who begins to hear the narration of the end of her novel in his head.

Crick is an IRS agent who conducts audits of people who have committed various violations of tax law. The cast of characters around him: a baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman), and a fellow IRS agent (Tony Hale), are all tricked-out extremes of character—as is Crick himself—he counts brush strokes while brushing his teeth at night, among a host of other numerical idiosyncracies. Gyllenhaal’s baker is being audited because she only paid 78% of her taxes the previous year, and she tells Crick to his face that she paid the taxes for parks and school buses and whatnot, but omitted the taxes that would have gone to corporate bailouts and other socially unacceptable endeavors; Hoffman’s professor is brilliant and flighty and wildly eccentric (note his remarkable coffee compulsions); and Hale’s fellow IRS agent dreams of Space Camp and works on math at the dinner table.

Locked into routine, Crick is oblivious to the fact that he is alive until he hears the voice of the narrator of his story announce that his death is impending. This realization births a second, more important one—that he is utterly helpless outside the narrow scope of the routine of his existence. He seeks guidance from a psychiatrist, which leads him to Professor Hilbert, who uses literature to illustrate the broad dynamics of comedy and tragedy in life, and urges Crick to develop his acquaintance with Ana Pascal, the baker.

At this point, the pitfalls of formula begin to invade the film as Harold begins to flirt with Ana, who, for reasons passing understanding (except, perhaps, to say that her Bohemian spirit lets her see the sliver lining in every touch of grey, but even this is probably a stretch), responds to his clumsy posturings. She gives him milk and cookies, because his mommy never did, and he likes the milk and cookies, because he likes her. As Harold begins to “live his life,” as instructed by Hilbert, he indulges in things he has wanted before in passing but never seriously pursued.

Which brings us to a bona fide MacGuffin - Harold has always wanted to learn to play guitar, so he buys a butt-ugly, broken down Stratocaster and develops the calluses on his fingers and manages to learn how to play the thing. When he brings flours to Ana - flours, for the baker, as opposed to flowers - she invites him up to her apartment. (What he says to her between showing her the flours and going up to her apartment is simply so absurd that you have to suspend your disbelief as a defense mechanism - there is no polite request by the filmmakers that you do so - and if there had been, the film would likely have ground to a halt.) And, lo and behold, completely without any previous establishing shot, we find that she has a guitar lying mostly-unplayed on her couch. He picks it up and plays it - at her behest and while she is off-screen - and she finds herself so taken with his off-key caterwauling that she reciprocates the absurd pronouncement he advanced when he offered her the flours.

And thus Harold’s previously unfulfilled wants in life - like those of most men, learning to play guitar and having sex with ridiculously beautiful women (or perhaps your standard, garden-variety lady, but I happen to think that Maggie Gyllenhaal is positively stunningly beautiful) - are achieved. Cue formula once again, and we find that the writer, Karen Eiffel, has broken her block. Shortly thereafter, Harold discovers who the voice in his head is in real life, by way of the little television in Hilbert’s office - which advances the plot here but, unlike the guitar on the couch, DID have a prior establishing shot in one of Harold’s first meetings with the professor.

From here to the end, things go rather as you would expect them to, although it is a delight to watch Emma Thompson come to terms with her role in what Nathanael West in Miss Lonelyhearts would have called “the Christ business.”

There is in this film a pervading sense of greatness nearly missed, of life almost ended without having been lived - and though these ideas are held up by the religious notion that a god of some sort points us in the direction we are meant to travel, the performances of the main cast (Ferrell, Gyllenhaal, Thompson, and Hoffman) are so evocative as to make you pretty sure they could have done it on their own, without the help of any god.

Stranger Than Fiction was not quite what I thought it would be, but at the same time it wound up being quite a lot more than I had hoped for; and I think that means that it’s pretty good. I won’t go so far as to call the film challenging, but for this group of players (apart from Gyllenhaal, who more often than not tends to take the trickier indie roles) it is a breath of fresh air, a thing to ponder while you’re watching it and ponder even more after the credits have rolled.


Hillary said...

hey, SOME of us thought the guitar was PRETTY.

John Peddie said...

clearly you were delirious with fatigue.

Anonymous said...

Ok, ok, lets get a few things straight. First off, I can only assume that Hillary is in fact a woman named Hillary, in which case it if perfectly fine for her to like a blue-ish, girly guitar, and I mean nothing bad by that. As for the film, loved it. I totally agree with your write up John-O.

John Peddie said...

hillary is the booth squad lady of the oreos. that ought to clear everything up.

Hillary said...

i'm famous for store bought? just wait until i bake some more cookies for work.
you know, hillary is a uni-sex name. i'm just sayin'.