"The type of life being lived, and the quality of the pancakes...."
Stranger Than Fiction was one of my favorite surprises of last year. Sony marketed it as another dumb Will Ferrell vehicle, but the actual movie was a smart metafictional comedy that played with cinematic and literary conventions in quite special ways. In a day and age where every movie is spoiled in the trailer, it's a rare and wonderful thing when the surprises stay hidden and waiting to happen. For once, the marketing may have gotten it wrong, but in all the right ways for guys like me who saw the picture anyway.
Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an IRS-agent whose lonely life is only soothed by his regular cataloguing of the mundane details of his existence. One day, his world is upset by the introduction of a voice in his head. The voice is narrating everything he does, critiquing and turning his every boring action into metaphor and giving an almost anthropomorphic life to Harold's watch. Harold becomes discombobulated by this development, but he tries to soldier on. No one can stop the IRS. Death and taxes are the only inevitable things in life, after all.
As it turns out, Death and Taxes is the name of the book in which Harold is now the unwitting protagonist. It's being written by reclusive author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), and though the IRS part covers the taxes, the death side of things is going to come out of the novel. When Eiffel's authorial voice informs Harold that his demise is imminent, he enlists literature professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) to try to get to the bottom of what is happening to him. Together they try to figure out what kind of story Harold's life is turning into, be it a comedy or a tragedy, and if the plot is something he can take control of or is out of his hands. When it appears that it's the latter, Hilbert suggests that Harold take advantage of the time he has left, and the once meek man sets out to live life to the fullest, attempting all the wild things he was too scared to try previously.
One of the main things Harold pursues is his crush on Ana, the anarchist baker whose refusal to pay her taxes has gotten her into hot water. When Harold showed up to do her audit, her rejection of his authority was as disconcerting for him as the sudden arrival of his narrator. Even more surprising for him, though, was her subsequent kindness. Harold can't get Ana out of his thoughts, and since she's played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who can blame him? Ana is another enchanting performance by Gyllenhaal, her third in 2006. Between this, Sherrybaby, and World Trade Center, how is it she didn't get an Oscar nomination for something? She plays Ana with a brassy ferocity, but it's not just empty bravado or a one-note character. As she and Harold get to know each other, Gyllenhaal also manages to be sweet and endearing. She gives him a reason to live, to solve the problem and stop the story of his life from ending.
The whole cast is quite good, really. I'm the hugest fan of Dustin Hoffman's recent career switch into comedy. His presence in any funny film is enough to make me watch it. And, of course, Emma Thompson is Emma Thompson. How can you not?
It's Will Ferrell who plays the lead, however, and so Will Ferrell who carries most of Stranger Than Fiction. I loved him on Saturday Night Live and in the various cameos he has made over the years, but as far as films where he has been the main actor, I usually liked his performance while being less than thrilled about the movie. Best known for being outrageous and doing just about anything for a laugh, there have been rare instances where Ferrell has proven he can do more than speak loudly and show his hairy gut, most notably in his askew take on the standard Woody Allen character in Melinda and Melinda. I really think he'd do well to take more roles like this, because he's exceptional as Harold Crick. It's not a showy role since so much of it is about being too scared to try anything--the exact opposite personality type to what Will Ferrell has based his career on. Harold's the quintessential little guy, and Ferrell makes him the sort of likable schlub you can't resist rooting for.
The other main star of Stranger Than Fiction is one that does not get a credit on the poster. It's the visual effects that add another layer to the story deconstruction and imbue the whole affair with the appropriate sense of whimsy. As I noted, Harold has a slight case of OCD, and he endlessly counts and calculates every little thing he encounters. His daily routines are mapped out from second to second all the way down to the last step. These mental processes are represented onscreen by slick computer graphics that show how the math is done and keeps track of the results. Combined with the creative exposition of Emma Thompson's voiceover, the fabric of storytelling itself is made into a major character. This is not just a movie about fictional characters leading fictional lives, but about fiction itself, about the art of creation both on the page and on the screen.
Stranger Than Fiction was written by a relative newcomer, Zach Helm. He'd written one feature for TV before, and now the wunderkind is following up this film with his first directorial effort. Lensing Helm's first major script is Marc Forster, the man behind Finding Neverland and Monster's Ball. Together they have a firm grasp on the wildly complicated elements of Stranger Than Fiction. There is a lot going on here, including pieces of the narrative that they carry through the movie like they are extraneous elements, only to reveal their significance at the end. In all honesty, I really was expecting them to blow it in the finale. I thought for sure that there would be some kind of cop-out, some way of taking the wonderfully smart build-up and dashing it on the rocks of test audiences and studio interference. I couldn't be happier to be so wrong. Stranger Than Fiction rings out on all the right notes, keeping its wits (and its wit) all the way to the end.
Eventually, Harold and Hilbert are going to discover who is writing Harold's story, and Harold is going to have to find her. But what if the book is so good it would be a sartorial crime to prevent it from being completed? Is art more important than a man's life? Can Harold undo what Karen Eiffel has begun, and should he?
When I first walked out of the movie theatre on a Friday night after seeing Stranger Than Fiction, I couldn't believe what a good time I had. A friend and I had gone as a last-minute whim. Despite having heard mixed reactions from other acquaintances, it was one of the few movies neither of us had seen. As soon as we were done, we knew why some people hated it (they wanted a silly movie) and others loved it (they were open to something more unique). We both fell in the latter category, delighted that our preconceptions of what made a Will Ferrell movie had been challenged and subverted. It's a comedy that has laughs, don't get me wrong, but it's also much deeper than that, giving its audience characters and themes that are unexpected and compelling. For the next several days, every time my friend and I were in contact, we talked about it. Stranger Than Fiction stuck with us, and it just got better with age.
So, forget what you think you're going to see, just put the movie in and go with it. You're in for a real experience that is, indeed, Stranger Than Fiction.
DVD viewers also have the choice of a Dolby Surround track in French, and subtitles in both English and French.
* "Actors in Search of a Story" (18 minutes, 30 seconds): The casting process is run through, and each member of the roster gets a short focus. The performers participate (Dustin Hoffman, unsurprisingly, is the funniest), as does director Marc Forster, writer Zach Helm, and producers Lindsay Doran and Eric Kopeloff.
* "Building the Team" (8:30): Beginning with the involvement of Forster, and then going from there, introducing various members of the production team. The most interesting subject touched on is the creation of the graphics that illuminate Harold Crick's world, explained by visual effects designer Kevin Tod Haug and members of the CGI-house MK12. This element actually gets its own featurette further down.
* "On Location in Chicago" (10:30): Exactly what you think it is, a short bit about shooting Stranger Than Fiction in the Windy City.
* "Words on a Page" (9:30): A bit about Zach Helm and the development of the script. If you ever wonder what's wrong with Hollywood movies, this promo reel accidentally explains it. No knock at Helm, who wrote a great script, but the fact that everyone here is impressed that a writer can handle both story and character suggests maybe some folks in the motion picture business need to readjust their conception of what writing is supposed to be. For a movie with such literary appeal, I have so say I found this very off-putting. Lindsay Doran in particular is shockingly accepting of the idea that most writers can only do one thing, including down to being impressed that maybe their specialty could be coming up with neat character names. Yes, my friends, someone may be getting paid right now just to go through a script and give everyone better names.
* "Picture a Number: The Evolution of a G.U.I." (17:15): The way Harold Crick's obsessive compulsive tendencies are catalogued onscreen is based on a computer function known as Graphic User Interface (referred to in here as "Gooey"). This is an in-depth look at the design of the effect and the work of MK12. Of all the features, this is the one that is really interesting, as it actually takes you through the development process and shows early test versions that led to the final product.
Here is a good spot to also give major props to the menu design of the DVD, which I would guess are also by MK12, as they use the same style as the G.U.I. effects in the movies and have the same meticulous attention to detail. (I also like that the DVD itself is an apple, an important object in the story.)
* "On the Set (3:00): A useless montage of random on-set footage set to a techno soundtrack. It does introduce us to quite a few of the unsung, behind-the-scenes heroes, but ultimately, this will be more interesting for the crew than it will be for the viewer.
In addition to the featurettes, there is one extended scene and one deleted element. Both are actually part of the Book Channel interviews made for the background of a couple of scenes in Dustin Hoffman's office. Both are hosted by actress Kristin Chenoweth, playing Darlene Sunshine, a character that doesn't actually read the books she's talking about. The first is the uncut sit-down with Emma Thompson's character (6:30) and the other is with a fake author named Peter Alan Prothero, played by FX designer Kevin Tod Haug (5:00). Bother were improvised on set and are pretty entertaining.
Seven previews for various Sony releases, including a couple starring Will Ferrell, and a spot for the Stranger Than Fiction soundtrack are also included.