10 November 2006 | DonFishies
Helm's great screenplay and Ferrell's astonishing acting make for an excellent film
I liked the idea of Stranger than Fiction from the start. And I still like the idea after having seen the film. I was not a big fan of all the huge press first-time screenwriter Zach Helm was getting, but in comparison to the ballooning publicity with Sascha Baron Cohen and Borat!, it was not too bad. I continually looked forward to seeing the film, and am glad that the great trailer did not reveal everything like I had originally assumed.
The film involves Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), an IRS agent who lives his life by a very strict routine. One day, he wakes up, and begins to hear a woman narrating all of his actions. Suspicious, Crick continues attempting to live his life out, but after an inexplicable comment in regards to his "immenent death", he goes on the hunt for the voice. Randomly spliced into Crick's search is Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson). She is writing a novel about a character named Harold Crick, and is unknowingly the voice Crick keeps hearing. She is battling a case of writer's block, and spends much of the film attempting to come up with the finale for the character.
Unlike many other existential comedies, Fiction is sweet and almost innocent in its design. Yes, the main focus of the film is pretty grim, but the life-altering questions that keep going around during the film do not become anywhere near as depressing and bizarre as those found in the likes of the work of Charlie Kaufman. In a way, Fiction feels a lot like a Kaufman-written film, but lacking in the means of being totally "out there"; almost like being a decaf as opposed to a regular. As a result, while being an excellent film (albeit slightly predictable), it cannot break past the mold already set by the likes of the absolutely brilliant Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It just feels like it is missing that spark that could have sprung it right into the brilliance that all films like this strive for.
Going along with the story itself, it feels a little ill-paced in some few instances, but for the most part sucks you right in and keeps you there. It has many comedic elements, and has some great dramatic sequences as well. They all play well, and while I still would not give him a ton of credit, I was very impressed by Helm's first-time effort. His writing feels vibrant and fresh, and in a film industry with absolutely little originality or thought, it is just great that movies like this slip through and get green-lighted. Every piece of dialogue and background feels well expressed, and just play out astonishingly well. On the topic of Crick however, I liked the idea of how neurotic and obsessive Crick was over numbers, but I thought it was a bit of an overkill to include special effect shots showing the numbers being counted within his head. It felt silly in The Da Vinci Code, so why did Sony feel the need to add it here too?
On that note, much like my being impressed by Adam Sandler from time to time, Ferrell really pulls through here, and does give the best performance of his short career. The psychological trauma that his character goes through is evident in his facial and body emotions, and the way he conveys it on screen is nowhere near what I would have expected. He brings an amazing sense of what this character is really about, and gives him a poignancy that makes him so life-like that it becomes almost too great to explain. This is a pathetically sad man who you cannot help but pull for as the film goes on. And for all the right reason too. He may deliver some of the funniest lines in the movie, but he is totally mature and at ease in this role. Thankfully this means that he stays serious for the most part throughout the film, and does not let any Ricky Bobby or Ron Bergundy slip out. He could have easily blown it, but thankfully, manages to stay in check.
Thompson is another particular standout, especially in contrast to Ferrell. She is broken and weak, searching for the perfect ending. The pain and sorrow that goes through her face as she writes and thinks has a poetic excellence to it, and she only continues to prove how good of an actor she is. Dustin Hoffman and Queen Latifah work well in supporting roles, supporting Ferrell and Thompson respectively as the film progresses on. Hoffman has always had great comedic timing, and he does not let it go to waste here. He plays right off of Ferrell in grand ways, and just feels totally at home in the role. Latifah, while not in the film so much, is very good in her bit parts. Maggie Gyllenhaal also shines here, and clearly has the makings for an Oscar sometime in the late future.
For its small problems, Fiction still is able to prove its worth, and is clearly one of the best films of the year. It will be able to stand proud among the other entries in the existential comedy genre, or just stand proud on its own. Helm's screenplay coupled in with an intoxicatingly great performance by Ferrell make for a great trip to the movies. And sure beats some of the crap that's been released over the past few weeks.