Monday, December 04, 2006

"Stranger Than Fiction," dir. Marc Forster (Oklahoma Gazette)

Literary Device

Recently a friend of mine was reading a bedtime story to his four-year-old daughter when she blindsided him with a question. Did the characters in the story, she demanded to know, realize they were in a book?

Good question. My friend was stumped.

That sort of query likely inspired novice screenwriter Zach Helm to pen “Stranger Than Fiction,” which imagines what would happen if a flesh-and-blood man discovered that he was in a work of literature.

At first blush, one might assume the movie is the creation of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Adaptation”) Hollywood’s reigning master of absurdity. But this film plays more like Kaufman Lite. While Helm and director Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland”) have devised a plot that M.C. Escher would have loved, “Stranger Than Fiction” is more interested in tugging heartstrings than blowing minds.

Will Ferrell finally graduates from raucous comedy to quirky leading man as IRS agent Harold Crick, a painfully straight arrow who leads a painfully solitary existence. As an omniscient female narrator tells us, Harold eats alone, washes the dishes alone and sleeps alone. In the morning, he counts brushstrokes while brushing his teeth.

Soon we learn that this narrator also happens to be audible to Harold Crick. The internal voice starts to drive him batty, especially when he is sent to audit a free-spirited baker, Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), to whom he is strongly attracted.

The voiceover strikes an ominous tone after Harold resets his wristwatch and asks a stranger for the correct time. “Little did he know,” intones the narrator, “that this seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death.”

Afraid he has somehow been ensnared by fiction, Harold seeks help from a literary professor (Dustin Hoffman). The professor advises that Harold’s best hope for self-preservation might be to try ensuring that his story is a comedy. There’s only one hitch; Harold is trapped in tragedy. His author, Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is renowned for killing off her main characters. Fortunately for Harold, she is paralyzed by writer’s block, unsure of how to snuff out her newest protagonist.

Ferrell gets to flex his acting chops here, playing a character so perversely guarded that even his apartment is an exercise in drabness. The entire cast shines. Thompson is terrifically neurotic as the chain-smoking novelist, and Gyllenhaal and Hoffman are typically excellent. Only Queen Latifah seems wasted in a pointless role as Kay’s assistant.

“Stranger Than Fiction” poses rarified questions about fiction, but in the end it’s a genuinely sentimental tale that revels in the pleasures of the real world. As Harold resolves to live the life he’s always wanted, “Stranger Than Fiction” finds much to love -- timeless literature, Fender Stratocasters and, in one memorable scene, milk and cookies. Such joys receive an ample boost from a stellar post-punk soundtrack that features Spoon and the Jam.

The movie also celebrates great storytelling. For all its winking postmodernist vibe, “Stranger Than Fiction” is a real crowd-pleaser. It toys with art and reality, but ultimately acknowledges that both realms have very different responsibilities.


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