“Stranger Than Fiction” offers a different side of Ferrell
Stranger things could occur in the film industry this year, but it’s not likely.
On the surface, it wouldn’t seem possible that a whimsical, low-key, thought-provoking, witty and virtually inoffensive little film could make it to theaters unmolested. But “Stranger Than Fiction” is all these things, and its arrival is a beautiful thing. After all, when Hollywood wants to try to do something original, it usually opts for the grotesque or the shocking. Or both.
But despite all it has going for it, “Stranger Than Fiction” is a difficult film to unequivocally recommend. Its trailer implies a mainstream comedy starring goofball Will Ferrell. It has comedic moments sprinkled throughout its pensive nature, but none require Ferrell to disrobe or act like a maniac. And there’s the rub. Although “Stranger Than Fiction” is arguably one of the Saturday Night Live alumnus’ finest two hours on film, it’s probably not what the manic actor’s fans are expecting.
Those who find Ferrell’s on-screen antics unappealing will certainly be less inclined to see any movie in which he stars, no matter how good the word-of-mouth. Ferrell has the potential to fall into a Jim Carrey rut of sorts, unable to escape the low brow humor that has become his trademark, but likewise unable to win over detractors. Robin Williams has made a career out of succeeding in this effort, but he’s an exception.
In either case, those who are tempted to dismiss “Stranger Than Fiction” ought to reconsider.
Ferrell plays sad sack IRS auditor Harold Crick. He’s good with numbers, less skilled with people. A voiceover narrates his mundane life, while fascinating computer generated overlays pop up on screen to provide the exact numerical details of his activities, like the number of strokes in his tooth brushing regimen.
Turns out “The Voice” is that of author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a popular novelist who’s experiencing a 10-year episode of writer’s block, and is punching out what appears to be the story of Harold Crick’s life. It doesn’t take much to buy into the whimsy involved here– Harold hears a voice, seeks counsel from some learned individuals including literary professor Jules Hilbert (a delightfully analytical Dustin Hoffman), and tries to uncover whether his life is a comedy (a happy ending) or a tragedy (Eiffel’s specialty, gulp!).
Hoping for the promise of an uplifting ending to his story, Crick, in all his awkward humanity, pursues a bohemian, tax-evading baker named Ana (the sparklingly engaging Maggie Gyllenhaal). What’s refreshing here is the lack of cynicism and the edginess so pervasive in movies today. Director Marc Forster cut his teeth in two wildly different themes with “Monster’s Ball” and “Finding Neverland,” but he clearly understands what makes characters interesting and real.
“Stranger Than Fiction” should find a home with fans who liked “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” but didn’t connect with the pervasive dysfunction of its characters, or those who were drawn to the philosophic undertones of “I Heart Huckabees” but couldn’t tolerate the film’s lack of cohesion. Though uncredited as such, the film finds appears inspired by the little-known song “The Diary of Horace Wimp,” by seminal 70s band Electric Light Orchestra. And any film that features a seafoam green Fender Stratocaster in an important plot point must have something going for it.
Like a chocolate on a turned-down bed in a three star hotel, “Stranger Than Fiction” is a clever, unexpected, and much appreciated surprise.
Rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, sexuality, and brief language (one F-word) and male rear nudity.