Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Stranger Than Fiction

Stranger Than Fiction is a delightful gem of a movie; it’s the kind of simple story that reminds you how fun it can be to let yourself be charmed by a quiet film. It does have a star-studded cast, but it’s as though the movie doesn’t know it. Rather than serving as a self-indulgent vehicle for its big names, the film concerns itself with characters and ideas. While the film is founded on a supremely clever concept, I assure you, there is far more to it than its premise. Stranger Than Fiction has real purpose beyond its enticing setup, building through some wonderful character development to a thought-provoking payoff.

Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, a veteran auditor for the IRS. Emma Thompson provides the film’s voiceover narration, describing Harold’s mundane existence in great detail. Before the story really even begins, Harold discovers an interesting and unexpected dilemma: he can hear the narrator’s voice. Harold hears a woman’s voice describing his life scene for scene, as he lives it, “accurately and with a better vocabulary.” After he hears a “Little did he know” statement predicting his imminent death, Harold seeks advice from a professor of literature (Dustin Hoffman). Together, they realize that the voice he’s hearing is that of renowned author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), who has no clue that her upcoming tragic novel has a real man’s life and death at its center. The trouble is, through a series of circumstances and encounters, Harold begins to discover for the first time that his life may be worth living.

Looking at the list of lead actors, it seems an odd and unlikely crew: Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, and Queen Latifah. As Harold Crick, Will Ferrell proves that he can be more than simply funny. While this film doesn’t mark as dramatic a shift for Ferrell as Dead Poet’s Society was for Robin Williams or The Truman Show was for Jim Carrey, it does give Ferrell an opportunity to give a likable, understated performance. His powerful on-screen presence has lent itself to some hilarious scenery-chewing roles in the past (and probably will again in the future), but he gives a surprisingly subtle performance as Harold Crick that is more than welcome. Director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland) has allowed all actors to use the “less is more” acting philosophy, and it works. The entire cast seems to believe in the material, and every time I see Maggie Gyllenhaal act, I wonder why I don’t see her more often. She strikes the right note in playing opposite Ferrell, and the performances seem to enhance one another. If ever the film comes up short, it’s in Queen Latifah’s character. Her performance is suitable, but the character itself seems unnecessary.

Stranger than Fiction does a wonderful job living up to its potential. There are several inevitable moments and developments, including Harold meeting the author, and these are executed well. The film’s romance develops more impressively than others, but the film also has plenty of unexpected moments. Not just plot twists, but scenes and lines of dialogue that carry real emotional weight. When Harold meets with the professor to seek his advice, their first order of business is to determine whether Harold is in a comedy or a tragedy. After hearing Harold describe how his life is boring, lonely, and how everyone hates him, the professor determines that it must be a comedy. Stranger Than Fiction has feet in both worlds, and while the comedy definitely holds dominance, there are moments of real poignancy throughout.

I should take this time to post a disclaimer that Stranger Than Fiction is not mainstream. The film is fairly odd, dabbling in various philosophical and existentialist ideas. A film can sometimes be overly praised to the point where all viewers assume that the film is for them, and this movie isn’t for everyone. It’s a thought-provoking piece, but take note of the premise; there are very unconventional forces at work here. In keeping with this, even with the film’s big stars, Stranger Than Fiction probably won’t be a big hit. It’s impossible to say for sure, but because of the film’s quiet nature, I’m afraid it will join the ranks of so many other great films that are somehow doomed to immediate obscurity. However, such films are periodically rediscovered and celebrated by the viewing public, and I suspect that many a future viewer will see this film, love it, take credit for discovering it, and wonder how they ever missed it.