Friday, November 10, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction - Movie Review

Stranger Than Fiction 2006

Harold Crick is an auditor for the IRS, who lives a solitary and sedimentary life. Each moment of his waking life is one carefully planned and timed like clockwork to his trusty wristwatch. Until the day he begins to hear a voice in his head. A voice that does not ask anything of him, but one that merely seems to be narrating the very minute details of his humdrum existence.

While this scenario could easily mark the beginnings of a “Sybil” like social drama or a Denzel Washington serial killer action flick, it lies squarely within the scope of comedy. A comedy starring the most ubiquitous star of his day, Will Ferrell in a performance that is blissfully free of his over the top mania that earmarks his aimed at the crotch former vehicles.

As penned by Zach Helm and directed by Marc Forster, it emerges as a wonderfully witty and somewhat Capra-esque comedy that surprised us by the force of its easy to swallow message. Live your life, it begs to tells us, before you might regret it.

The supporting cast is one chock full of Oscar caliber character actors who excel in their far too brief roles and grounded by one more than Oscar worthy performance by the most underused actress of her generation, the incredibly talented Emma Thompson who supplies the dulcet and witty tones of the narrator to Harold’s life.

Emma Thompson portrays one Kay Eiffel, a famed author who we first encounter in the apparent throws of a suicidal depression. Into her daydream world enters one Penny Escher, in the form of Queen Latifah who plays an author’s assistant hellbent on pushing Kay through her apparent writer’s block. The intertwining narratives of author and subject flesh out this whimsical tale. Plaudits rightfully belong to writer Zach Helm who dares not to brave new territory, but to layer familiar territory with charm and wit. Part of his subtle wit may be lost to most viewers, but a quick internet search confirmed our suspicion that the characters names are more than mere coincidence. (See cast list below.)

Director Marc Forster has turned out to be quite the interesting auteur despite having helmed one of our least favorite flicks in recent years. Coming out of his critically successful “Finding Neverland”, he manages to maintain his momentum to entertain without resorting to pyrotechnics. The film benefits greatly from his carefully metered use of “special effects”. Namely, the ghostlike overlaying of symbols, graphs, and charts that seem to delineate the daily measured existence of Harold Crick.

But the witticisms and visual cleverness of pen and lens would amount for precious little if it weren’t for the stellar cast. This is one of the rare films that makes expert use of its name cast. (With one exception, more on this later.) Will Ferrell has never been one of our favorites. His work thus far has amounted to fairly little outside of the range of former SNL cast members. His lowbrow hijinks in previous frat house fare hardly prepared us for the fine job he delivers as the erstwhile hero.

Under a hangdog expression that only a gifted comedian can pull off without lulling us to sleep, his character’s emergence out of his layered shell is wonderful to behold. While he has many moments of explosive hilarity, they are never so vulgar or oversold to appear ridiculous. While it may be a cry for critical praise, it is deserved. Instant parallels to Jim Carrey’sdramatic” breakthrough in “The Truman Show” are not only obvious but well deserved. Just as that film demonstrated that the sloppy clown could more than handle his own in a well made movie, one hopes this flick will expand Mr. Ferrell’s future choices.

As Ana Pascal, the object of Harold’s latest audit and newfound infatuation, Maggie Gyllenhaal delivers gamely and solidifies her already impressive stance as one of the best actresses of her generation. Her charm is effortless. Her believability, complete. And considering she’s saddled with the “Bohemian Chick” cliché found in romantic comedies since Goldie Hawn made it her domain over thirty years ago, that is saying something.

We also applaud the terrific cameos delivered by Oscar nominee Tom Hulce as a granola therapist who first launches Harold on his road to self discovery and the great Oscar winning Linda Hunt, who is absolutely hilarious as an incredulous psychiatrist who makes the crucial connection for Harold’s bizarre dilemma. For our hero is not in need of a mental health specialist, he needs a literary theorist.

Enter two time Oscar winning Dustin Hoffman, blissfully dialing down the ticks and brays that have marked his more recent performances. At first, unbelieving of Harold’s predicament, and then gradually intrigued and ultimately fascinated by the magical possibilities, Dustin is the perfect foil for Will Ferrell’s befuddlement.

And now we turn to the best and worst performances of this interesting flick. Sadly, Queen Latifah is wasted in the nothing role of literary amanuensis. Her character is not only obsolete, but so completely void of charm or backbone that poor Queen is left to gruff and huff and sass her way through her lines with barely a glimmer of humanity intact. What makes her participation even sadder, is that she is paired in every scene with the incredible Emma Thompson.

Since her earliest days as an up and coming actress, Miss Thompson has shown her supreme mastery of her craft and her wonderful star quality through an incredibly vast array of characters. In the course of her career, she has delivered many fine performances and one truly great one for the ages. As the only actor to cop a Lead Acting Oscar and one for screenwriting, her skills seem to be limitless. Here, as the completely shattered, chain smoking acerbic novelist desperately trying to find closure to her latest work, she is mesmerizing. It is a comic gem of a performance grounded in the most heart breaking reality of the tortured artist at the end of her tether.

It is with this solid cast under his watchful eye, that Forster manages to pull off the near impossible. A smart, sassy, witty and entertaining comedy that earns its emotional highlight. A highlight that completely blindsided us. For when Harold finally manages to charm the defensive Ana with a perfectly thoughtful gift to repay a debt, he is invited back to her place for dinner. During the course of which, he timidly attempts to play the guitar. A guitar that serves as the symbol of his burgeoning freedom from his regimented existence. The choice of song, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s reaction and most of all Will Ferrell’s carefully delivered performance succeed in charming both the character of Ana and the audience.

It put a smile on our hearts. A smile that continued through the beautifully handled finale that sensibly steered clear of grand theatrics or twist tie endings that typically derail romantic comedies. This film was an unexpected treat that we hope you will attempt to savor. Bless you all!

Directed by Marc Forster
Written by Zach Helm

Will Ferrell as Harold Crick
Maggie Gyllenhaal as Ana Pascal
Dustin Hoffman as Professor Jules Hilbert
Queen Latifah as Penny Escher
Emma Thompson as Kay Eiffel
Tony Hale as Dave
Tom Hulce as Dr. Cayly
Linda Hunt as Dr. Mittag-Leffler

Cinematography by Roberto Schaefer
Film Editing by Matt Chesse
Original Music by Britt Daniel & Brian Reitzell
Costume Design by Frank L. Fleming
Production Design by Kevin Thompson
Art Direction by Craig Jackson
Set Decoration by Ford Wheeler



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