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Stranger Than Fiction
Take a movie about a man who hears a woman narrating his life. Have Will Ferrell play that man. Throw in acting legends Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman, and finish it off with a touch of Maggie Gyllenhaal. Stir vigorously and top with cameos by Tom Hulce, Queen Latifah, and Tony Hale. What do you get? A meditative look at the human condition that was passed off as a comedy.
Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) works for the IRS. He's the kind of guy who is a whiz with numbers, and lives his life by them. One day, he hears a woman (Emma Thompson) narrating his actions. At first, he finds this troubling but not terrible, until she announces that he is fated to die. At that point, it becomes personal, and Crick seeks out someone who he thinks can help him, namely, an English professor. Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) at first dismisses Crick, but then decides to help him, anyway. Meanwhile, Crick is assigned to audit a contrary baker, Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who he finds himself liking against his better judgment. But as time passes he knows he's that much closer to his inevitable death, and he has to try to stop it.
Stranger Than Fiction was billed as a comedy. And it has its funny moments. Will Ferrell is an intrinsically funny guy, and Dustin Hoffman is quite humorous in his role. But don't be fooled, Stranger Than Fiction is not a comedy. It's kind of a hodge-podge. It's got some humor, it's got some romance. But mostly it wants to make big statements about life, and about humanity, and on that level, it doesn't really work. That isn't to say it's a bad movie, but it bites off more than it can chew.
The performances, however, are all excellent. Will Ferrell does a nice turn against type, playing a subdued, repressed man who learns to be more free (not crazy, mind you, just not so uptight). Hoffman gets to hang loose and be genuinely funny in what is probably his most carefree performance in years. Emma Thompson completely becomes Kay Eiffel, losing herself to the role in her inimitable way. Maggie Gyllenhaal is an interesting mix of toughness and vulnerability, and Tom Hulce and Tony Hale are just hilarious. The only sore thumb in the group is Queen Latifah, who feels too restrained and out of place.
The movie is at its best when it's focusing on small details that are funny in and of themselves. For example, there's a scene where Hoffman asks Ferrell a series of absurd questions to determine what sort of literary character he might be. Annoyed, Ferrell asks Hoffman why he's asking. Hoffman explains that he has definitively proven that Ferrell is not a series of characters from various books, ending with a Golem. He then asks, with utter seriousness, "Aren't you glad you're not a Golem?" Shocked, all Ferrell can do is reply, "Yes, I'm relieved to know I'm not a Golem." It's so simple, but it's genuinely funny.
The film goes too far afield when it attempts to cure the human condition through Crick's story. It also doesn't help that throughout the film, Kay Eiffel is described as an incredible, amazing author, and that this book will be her masterpiece, a new benchmark in American literature. Thing is, all the narration we hear in the movie isn't that great. It's nothing special. Certainly not a masterpiece. Another problem is that the narration is not all that constant in the film. Considering it's the basic premise of the movie, you'd think there'd be more of it.
Stranger Than Fiction is a solid movie, but it's no grand slam. It's a double at most, which would have been fine if all it wanted was to be funny. But it wants to be so much more, and it's that "more" that fails it.
The Blu-ray Disc
Sony Home Entertainment presents Stranger Than Fiction in a 1.85:1 1080p MPEG-2 transfer. I was quite pleased with this transfer, it's got a strong level of detail and color reproduction. The film has generally muted colors, with the exception of a certain wristwatch, but I prefer that to all the colors being dialed to 11. I noticed a slight amount of grain which I presume is intentional. Overall, a solid transfer that does justice to the movie.
Sony offers up an uncompressed PCM 5.1 mix here, along with standard Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes in French and English. To be totally honest, the PCM track didn't sound too much better than the Dolby mix. This is a dialogue heavy film, with very little in the way of action, or even raised voices. The most use the surrounds get is from the music (and there are some winners on the soundtrack). I'm glad we're getting uncompressed tracks, but here there's not much for it to offer.
There are several excellent features on this Blu-ray, all of which have been ported from the standard DVD and are all in standard definition.
Actors In Search of a Story: The meatiest of the featurettes, at 18 minutes long. We get an excellent look at the cast and crew, with several fantastic interviews, especially with Dustin Hoffman. While it doesn't take the place of a full feature commentary, but it's definitely above average for a featurette.
Building The Team: A rundown of how the cast and crew came together. They make a big deal about director Marc Forster, who has directed a few Oscar nominated films.
On Location In Chicago: Shockingly, this featurette focuses on shooting in Chicago.
Words On A Page: A look into the script, and into the head of screenwriter Zach Helm. Sadly, this interview makes Helm seem like a better writer than the movie itself proves. Again, the movie isn't bad, but Helm is no Charlie Kaufman.
Picture A Number: The Evolution of a G.U.I.: Stranger Than Fiction has a very unique visual style, and this featurette goes in-depth into Forster's technique. It's quite interesting. Again, the end result doesn't quite match Forster's intentions, but I loved seeing why they did what they did.
Deleted Scenes: Technically, these aren't exactly deleted scenes. During the film, Hoffman's character watches interviews with various authors on a fictional book channel. What we get here are two full interviews. The first is an extended version of an interview with Emma Thompson as Kay Eiffel. This is easily better than anything in the film proper. Both Thompson and the interviewer are in top improvisational form, and I was laughing from beginning to end. The second was an unused interview that, while less funny, was still quite amusing. This disc is worth picking up just for the Emma Thompson interview.
On The Set: A silly montage of behind-the-scenes footage. Fluff.
To round things out, we've got some hi-def previews, including Casino Royale, one of the most anticipated upcoming Blu-ray discs.
While an admirable effort, Stranger Than Fiction's reach exceeds its grasp. The best part are the performances, all of which are worth catching. The disc looks and sounds very good, and there are some top-notch supplements here. This disc is easily Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.