Sunday, December 03, 2006

Review - Stranger than Fiction

When it comes to writing a movie a great idea is only half the battle; the real test of a screenwriter’s mettle comes when that idea must be put into practice. Can you take an ingenious premise and make it work over the course of two hours? Can you give the most far-fetched notions weight and plausibility? Can you find a satisfying way to bring this story to a climax? That’s the challenge screenwriter Zach Helm has set himself with Stranger than Fiction, a literary romantic comedy which explores the boundary between truth and fiction and ends up struggling to contain the can of worms its high-concept premise opens up.

The film grows gradually more disappointing as Helm’s inability to handle the consequences of his central plot hook becomes apparent; and that’s a shame, because
Stranger than Fiction’s premise is a smart one. Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is a rigid, anal IRS agent who maintains a fastidious routine in his day-to-day life. He rises at the same time every morning, brushes his teeth with the same amount of strokes, takes the same amount of steps to work, eats at the same time, and then goes to bed at 11:13pm every single night. We know all this because the film’s female narrator (Emma Thompson) tells us the intimate details of Harold Crick’s life as he goes about his daily business. Then, one morning, Harold starts to hear her voice himself.

The voice belongs to Karen Eiffel, a reclusive, neurotic novelist who is working on her first novel in ten years, and Harold Crick is her central character. As Karen writes the story of Harold’s life, he starts to hear her narration inside his head, providing a running commentary on his every minor action. This leads to bemusement at first, then annoyance, before he finds himself shouting at the sky, begging this voice to shut up and leave him alone. Fortunately, literary expert Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) is on hand to help him out, and he suggests Harold should first determine whether the story being narrated is a comedy or a tragedy. It seems pretty plain to Harold that his life is a tragedy, particularly when he can’t make his feelings known to sexy baker Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and things get even worse for our protagonist when Karen Eiffel announces his imminent death.

In making
Stranger than Fiction, Helm and director Marc Forster are pretty much asking for the newly-formed adjective “Kaufmanesque” to be applied to their work. Few people get their name transformed into a descriptive term, but Charlie Kaufman’s dazzling screenplays for Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind have seen him positioned as contemporary cinema’s most original and imaginative creative force. That’s a high benchmark to live up to, and it comes as little surprise to see Stranger than Fiction starting to flag as it reaches beyond its grasp. The problems begin to arise when the structure of Helm’s meta-fictional comedy comes under any sort of scrutiny; some suspension of disbelief may be an obvious requirement when faced with a story such as this, but film still needs to make us believe in the central conceit to some extent, and that’s something Stranger than Fiction struggles to do.

“I’ve written eight novels” Karen Eiffel laments towards the end of the picture, “have I committed murder eight times?”. It’s an interesting point, but it’s not one that
Stranger than Fiction ever explores. How exactly does this thing work? What was Harold Crick’s status before the author began writing her book? What about the secondary characters involved in Harold’s life; aren’t they Eiffel creations even though they feature in the novel being written? Why is Eiffel unaware of the primary cause of her leading character’s misery, namely the constant narration running through his head? Perhaps most pertinently, why do people refer to Eiffel’s book as a masterpiece when the extracts we hear are staggeringly banal and amateurish?

Asking questions such as these may seem rather pedantic, but they’re all examples of niggling little holes and inconsistencies which popped up with dispiriting frequency during the picture and impinged upon my enjoyment of it.
Stranger than Fiction never dares to explore the boundaries of its own internal logic, and as a result it feels curiously underdeveloped. Marc Forster gives the film a self-consciously quirky look with his frequent visual tricks and on-screen graphics; but despite the clever set-up Stranger than Fiction actually follows a pretty basic romantic comedy structure, with a standard-issue “straight-laced guy learns to loosen up and enjoy life” theme driving it along. The thing is, the film is at its most enjoyable in those brief moments when it stops playing about with half-baked metaphysical crises and just lets the romance at the core of the movie blossom.

The main reason the romantic aspect of
Stranger than Fiction works so well is the central pairing of Will Ferrell and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who work hard to give the film a warm centre. They seem a most unlikely couple - the uptight taxman and the spiky free spirit - but their sweetly nuanced displays make the development of the relationship plausible and rather touching. Ferrell is particularly impressive in his attempt to follow Robin Williams and Jim Carrey down the straight acting road; he is restrained and subtle, and the sense of innocence which worked so well for him in Elf similarly gives his taxman an endearing quality here. Ferrell is still very funny - his confused reactions when the voice first appears in his life are a treat - but it’s a different, and more affecting kind of funny, and his smart underplaying gives the movie a solid centre. Emma Thompson is a little less successful as the troubled writer - her highly-strung performance is overly mannered - and they seem to have completely forgotten to write a character for Queen Latifah, but Dustin Hoffman offers a bit of comic relief with a relaxed and mildly eccentric supporting turn. His scenes with Ferrell are some of the film’s most enjoyable, and Helm has fun playing around with literary references whenever Hilbert is on screen.

There’s nothing really new here, though. The film doesn’t take its premise anywhere particularly adventurous and it continues to play safe as it builds to a climax which is all-too-neat. Actually, that’s not strictly true - the film does offer us the briefest glimpse of a darker, more daring finale, but then it gets cold feet and instead settles on an ending which is poorly written and woefully unconvincing. It’s a flat climax to a frustrating film; a picture which has a wonderfully promising premise in its hands and then hasn’t got a clue what to do with it. It’s so disappointing to see a film with this much potential slip blandly into trite moralising and a cop-out happy ending; and while Zach Helm deserves some credit for making his first screenplay as enjoyable and intriguing as it is, the sad truth of
Stranger than Fiction is that it’s simply not strange enough.