9 December 2006 | Chris_Docker
Clever intellectual wizardry
What if you only realised the importance of your life only days before you lost it? Even knowing when or how you will die (not such a fatuous idea with the completion of the Genome Project) raises difficult questions about how much we really want to know about ourselves.
Such a theme is usually simplified and subsumed into religious-based tales such as It's a Wonderful Life, but taken as an idea in its own right it has considerable intellectual weight. Harold Crick finds himself the main character in a story as it unfolds, but his annoyance quickly shifts gear as he is aware of the author saying, "Little did he know . . . it would lead to his imminent death."
Not the mindless comedy that the trailer suggests, Stranger Than Fiction is a precise and fairly cerebral story where the laughs stem more from individually appreciating certain aspects of its cleverness rather than any contrived humour.
The surface story is of a man who lives a humdrum if 'successful' life and is awakened to a more three dimensional existence by falling in love. The additional elements will either delight or annoy. IRS auditor Crick (Will Ferrell) starts hearing a voice in his head. It is that of Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a famous author. She describes exactly what he is doing but with a rather better vocabulary than he possesses. When she announces his imminent death, he takes drastic steps to meet her and persuade her to change the ending of her novel.
The characterisation, casting and acting is spot-on. Thompson is at her most refreshingly deranged as the harassed and reclusive author. With a literary equivalence of method acting, Eiffel balances on the edge of her desk trying to imagine the thoughts of someone about to make a suicide jump. She sits in the freezing drizzle watching cars cross a bridge to imagine an accident. Her rants at her 'editorial assistant' (who uses more traditional methods of accessing imagination) give a convincing insight into the creative process. While the voice in Crick's head is stereotypical Thompson, the fuller, isolated character, when we meet her, is a minor revelation. "I don't need a nicotine patch," she declaims angrily to her assistant. "I smoke cigarettes."
Maggie Gyllenhaal, as law drop-out turned baker Ana Pascal, sparkles, glows and is sexily alluring and radiant with passionate love of life - and she manages to light up the screen faster than, say, even Juliette Binoche in Chocolat. Dustin Hoffman has the least challenging of the main parts, but he endows his character (an eminent professor of literature) with the gravitas needed to take ideas of literary interconnectedness seriously. Will Ferrell gives a remarkable break-out performance in a straight role, reminiscent of Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. He is superbly suited to the part as audiences expect him to be a shallow comedy character and here he is trying the find the substantial person inside himself. Most of the audience are concentrating so much on the film's intricate hypothesis and how it is worked out, that only afterwards do we realise what a range of emotions Ferrell has to portray with complete seriousness.
Novelist Kay Eiffel (Thompson) anthropomorphises things like Crick's watch (similarly the official website says, in real time, "As the cursor waited anxiously for the site to load, it couldn't help but feel an overwhelming sense of elation.") We sense a life-imbuing process that might even be likened to what an actor does with his character; but the film goes a stage further by drawing a similarity with the essentially lifeless, clockwork existence of the IRS auditor whose only escape is discovering love with Pascal. His quest is aided by fictional plot analysis from Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) and of course begs the question, what is fiction?
Director Marc Forster showed consummate skill in portraying the positive escapism of JM Barrie's creative Peter-Pan-writing in Finding Neverland. With Stranger Than Fiction, he has teamed up with brilliant new dramatist Zach Helm. Helm is fascinated with the writing process in what he calls a larger Post-Modern movement. "From Pirandello, to Brecht, to Wilder, to Stoppard, to Woody Allen to Wes Anderson, we can see the progression of a contemporary, self-aware, reality-bending and audience-involving wave in dramatic literature," he says. "I love to see Homer Simpson reacting to his creator, Matt Groenig, or the cast of 'Urinetown' complaining from the stage about their own title."
Even the street names, business names, and the characters' last names of Stranger Than Fiction are significant Crick, Pascal, Eiffel, Escher, Banneker, Kronecker, Cayly, etc. are all puns on mathematicians who focused on the innate order of things. The invitation is to ask what is beyond the symmetry of things.
Stranger Than Fiction meets even its most formidable challenge - making the ending nail-biting and moving after such surreal content. But the ultimate message of the film seems a little trite if it is supposedly coming from a groundbreaking author. Like the glimpses of Eiffel's book, we are given impressive mountains of style but little substance. As the film doesn't press the strengths forcefully by admitting in so many words what it is getting at, there is a chance you may not bother with the subtleties - in which case it adds up to very little.
A superb testament to inventiveness and worthy of awards in many different categories, Stranger Than Fiction somehow falls short of being a masterpiece.