Shiny Shelf

Stranger Than Fiction

By Stephen Lavington on 28 November 2006

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

Around this time last year I vaguely remember having a go at ‘The Wendell Baker Story’, an inoffensive American indie quirkfest that happened to catch me at a bad moment. Well, I guess ‘Stranger Than
Fiction’, Will Ferrell’s shot at credibility, came at a good time, because I found its similarly self-conscious kookiness endearing,
and the movie itself a surprisingly emotional experience.

The story is one step removed from ‘Adaptation’. Ferrell’s Harold Crick, a lowly IRS agent, begins hearing ongoing narration in his head and is, it transpires a character in a novel written by chain-smoking British writer Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson). He tries to fathom his predicament with the help of professor of English Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) and, in the process, falls in love with militant baker Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

Of course all manner of crazy hijinks ensue to the tune of an achingly hip soundtrack. However the effect is not so uncompromisingly post-modern as Charlie Kaufman’s work – it’s all played comparatively straight, though this doesn’t work out so well if you’re looking for consistency – it just doesn’t make sense for Eiffel and Crick to exist in the same world.

The most notable feature of this movie is a respectable turn Will Ferrell. Previously (for instance in ‘The Wendell Baker Story’) it had looked as though he was handicapped with a deadpan style that would render any ‘straight’ performance comedic. However, things just about work here, helped by a lack of ‘hilarious’ improvised dialogue, and he makes a pretty good serious lead. In fact the whole cast play it pretty much straight though all seem on solid but undistinguished autopilot –Thompson does battily eccentric, Gyllenhaal does feisty,
Hoffman Xeroxes his ‘I Love Huckabees’ turn and sends it in by post.

It is words such as ‘cosy’ and ‘little’ which do the best justice to a film that suffers not so much from a lack of courage in its
convictions as a lack of convictions to start with. This goes with the territory – to make a movie which lets its lead character buck a determinist narrative is inherently problematic – what right does a filmmaker have to impose order, especially when a key point in the story is based on a choice of a cheerier but less powerful meaning
over one many times more resonant with meaning but also many times more depressing?

Ultimately the film trips itself up with its own cleverness. It starts with a particularly snazzy opening sequence that launches into a story based on an interesting idea. However, it looks as though no-one ever thought this idea through to the final act, or that the filmmakers – perhaps inspired by subject matter – hoped that a
logical and satisfying conclusion would emerge of its own accord. Sadly this didn’t happen.

That said, it’s a warm and fuzzy experience overall, and the shortcomings of the plot are made up for by a witty script: if the
dialogue doesn’t exactly sparkle it carries things along cheerily and thoughtfully and accentuates the, frankly bizarre, chemistry that undeniably exists between Ferrell and Gylenhall.

Despite its pretensions to post-modernism and commentary on the nature of narrative, this is a movie best viewed without a filter of cynical knowingness – the very failure to follow-through on its ideas makes it a much more pleasant movie than would otherwise be the case.

If the fundamental conflict of Thompson’s novelist is whether to produce a great or a nice book, it is a dilemma echoed in a film
which falters when it comes to bleak existentialism and defaults, instead, to warm and quirky comedy drama. This is no bad thing.

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By Stephen Lavington


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