Stranger than Fiction
2006Director: Marc Forster
Cast: Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal
arketing Stranger than Fiction was probably pretty easy—there’s the cast for one thing (Merchant-Ivory Oscar-winner Emma Thompson meets Talledega Nights star Will Ferrell, not to mention Queen Latifah, Dustin Hoffman, and Maggie Gyllenhaal). There’s the concept, too (Ferrell’s life is being narrated by Thompson, who is in the process of writing his death). It’s provocative-preview genius. No, marketing probably wasn’t the problem. Stranger than Fiction was made to be marketed. That’s the problem.
The setup to the actual movie unfolds exactly as in the trailer: an ordinary man named Harold Crick (Ferrell), an IRS agent leading a profoundly dull existence, wakes up one morning to find that the voice of an Englishwoman is narrating his every move. Elsewhere, a reclusive English novelist named Karen Eiffel (Thompson) is struggling to devise the means by which to kill her main character, Harold Crick.
To avoid being overly harsh, I’ll add here that the film is actually fine. It’s a nice, refreshingly original screenplay that never matures to its full potential. It’s saddled with a director (Marc Forster, Finding Neverland) who, while sometimes stylish, doesn’t have his comedic timing down or a clear direction for what his film should be. Forster aims for subtle-funny and, failing, at least comes up with not-too-boring. To the credit of both screenwriter and director, though, the film never tries to explain the paranormal glitch responsible for the cross-wiring of real and fictional worlds.
Rather, the movie is far more interested in building suspense as Harold’s world finally begins coming to life just as Karen narrates his path to imminent death. Harold doesn’t want to die. He is falling in love with a spunky baker (Gyllenhaal) who refuses to pay those taxes that enable the hegemonic bullying of the United States Dept. of Defense. She used to go to Harvard Law, but realized if she were going to change the world, she’d do it with cupcakes. He brings her flour. It’s all very sweet.
To preserve his life and burgeoning romance, Harold seeks out the professional advice of Professor Hilbert (Hoffman), a literary scholar whose first step is to rule him out as the hero of a Greek tragedy. Hoffman radiates a mischievous charisma that eclipses even Will Ferrell. He also gets all the funny lines. Thompson does her usual act of pronouncing pointed witticisms convincingly; she’s perfectly endearing. Gyllenhaal is tough and sympathetic. But it’s Ferrell who is the real surprise. Here is an actor whose trademark approach derives from never breaking his scene to get the laugh, who will repeat the joke enough times at such a volume that it will become obnoxious and then uncomfortable and finally uproarious. As the mild-mannered Harold, Ferrell still doesn’t break character but he’s forced to play it low-key. He did it before in the oddly benign Elf, and here he does it again to great effect.
So, the question comes back to how such a great cast working from such a fun concept can’t make a better movie. Part of it is the mismatching of a director, but more than that it’s simply because Stranger than Fiction, like many movies that disappointed this season (Babel, anyone?), makes for a more enjoyable two minutes than it does for a substantive two hours. It’s the marketer’s dream and the moviegoer’s nightmare, building high expectations around high concepts that go nowhere.
Stranger Than Fiction is playing in theatres across the country.