25 November 2006 | dtb
Helm and Forster: The New Kaufman and Jonze?
I saw STRANGER THAN FICTION (STF) on its opening weekend, and I think it's one of the most engaging, funny, poignant movies about writing, the creative process, and human nature I've seen since ADAPTATION. While Will Ferrell is a fave in our household, I must admit this is the first time I've seen him in a movie and thought of him as the character he's playing, not as Will Ferrell. Toning down his screechy/crazy qualities without losing his ability to make audiences laugh, Ferrell stars as unassuming IRS agent Harold Crick, who loves his job, so you know his life needs an overhaul! :-) Even Harold's curly-topped sidewall haircut seems to hint that his well-ordered life is about to dissolve into craziness. One morning, it does, amid FIGHT CLUB-style captions and the plummy, ironic tones of a British female narrator accompanying Harold's thoughts and actions in the opening scene -- narration that Harold can hear along with those of us in the audience. Our increasingly puzzled, alarmed hero soon realizes he's the protagonist in a novelist's new book-in-progress -- not just any novelist, but the reclusive Karen "Kay" Eiffel (Emma Thompson), who's been suffering from writer's block for 10 years and whose novels always end with her protagonists dying! As Kay's publisher sends compassionate but no-nonsense troubleshooter Penny Escher (Queen Latifah) to help unblock her, Harold seeks help from literary professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), an expert on the problematic author's favorite phrase "Little did he know..." It might be a subject especially dear to a writer's heart (especially in gags like Hilbert questioning Harold on standard literary devices to see if he's the hero of a comedy or a tragedy: "Have you been invited to a country house and had to solve a murder?...To find out what story you're in, I have to find out what stories you're *not* in..."), but I found STF funny, touching, and playfully surreal as director Marc Forster and screenwriter Zach Helm prove to be the new Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman, only with a touch of sweetness. In addition to the excellent Ferrell, Hoffman, Thompson, and Queen Latifah, the great cast includes Linda Hunt and an all-but-unrecognizable Tom Hulce as well-meaning but unhelpful psychiatrists, and Maggie Gyllenhaal as Ana, an anti-establishment baker who refuses to pay taxes on munitions (The Clash's "Death or Glory" plays in the background when Harold visits her bakery to audit her, only to be booed and heckled by Ana and her customers. Later, Harold wins Ana over by bringing her flours -- that's right, flours, not flowers! :-). There's nice location shooting in Chicago, too. STF is well worth heading out to a theater to see, and when it inevitably comes out on home video, it'll definitely be in the Writers' Movies section of my DVD collection alongside ADAPTATION, THE SINGING DETECTIVE, and the underrated ALEX AND EMMA!