Stranger Than Fiction - 3rd May 2011

If I was a cynic and I guess I can be sometimes, I would say that this film is one of those films that occasionally gets through the formulaic cookie cutter Hollywood machine, almost so they can prove that what they do is still artistically viable, but in their own way these sorts of films are just as formulaic.
They call them smaller, independent or arty pictures but none of those are adequate descriptions. Big named actors, looking to do quirkier and different parts and, in the case of this one, comedians looking to stretch their range, line up to participate and they are usually written and directed with that slightly smug, knowing glance at the camera where everyone involved in the project is just itching to show everyone else just how intelligent they are.
The scripts all seem like they are written by first time film students (and I know what I mean, I was one) and in their own way are riddled with cliches.
Take Strange Than Fiction, for example:
- It has the old chestnut of a chain smoking, neurotic writer with writer's block,
- The 'not as clever as it thinks it is' voiceover,
- The personification of inanimate, somewhat mundane objects,
- A protagonist who is a quiet, methodical, unassuming pleasant man who would be ok if he could just meet someone and learn to live a bit,
- The love interest who is quirky, independent, verbal and aggressive but with a heart of gold, willing to abandon all that for a man playing a rare yet hip song badly on an old guitar,
- The know it all, barmy professor who is both a friend and a father figure
- and debates on the nature of death and art.
I guess I would put it in the same category as a Charlie Kaufman film with a bit of the Truman Show thrown in for good measure. What I am just not sure about is whether it is one of those films or trying desperately to be one of those films.
What I do know is, to enjoy it and there is much to enjoy about this film, you need to get passed all that, accept it all and move on.

If you can do that then what you get is a well acted, fairly well written and wonderfully directed film that has just enough humour, just enough heart and, even, a glimmer of originality to stop itself disappearing right up its own bottom.
Clear winners and scene stealers here are Dustin Hoffman and Maggie Gyllenhaal proving you could stick her next to a bag of rodent tails and she would find a way to have chemistry with it. That you buy the relationship between her anti-war, tattooed, feminist baker and Ferrell's button down, shy IRS auditor is mostly down to her but is also, of course, in part, thanks to Ferrell.
Here he takes the, not particularly, showy and the, not particularly, comical role of the everyman struggling to come to terms with his own existence and to give it meaning and he plays it perfectly. A lot of talk is given to comedians who go straight and I wouldn't exactly call Stranger than Fiction a serious film, as it is riddled with intentional jokes, but Will Ferrell is playing the straight man of the piece to some extent. What he achieves here is a subtle and rich performance that may have root in some of his SNL or movie man-child personas but resists the urge to use any of his usual over-the-top tricks, more like on his way to becoming a latter day Bill Murray and unlike, say, Jim Carrey in the Truman Show or Eternal Boredom of a Thoughtless Mind who can't help mugging and prancing around like a buffoon.
Ferrell anchors the film perfectly and what's rare for a comedian, allows everyone else around him to be the funny ones. His performance is, very often, purely reactionary.

There is one problem I have with the whole thing though that does, towards the end, threaten to derail the film for me.
Firstly I don't understand why killing her characters at the end of her books makes Karen Eiffel, played well and unselfconsciously by Emma Thompson, a great writer but let's say that it does then why, when confronted with the reality of Harold Crick, instead of freaking out and making the decision should he live or should he die, why doesn't she simply change the name of the character in the book to Bertram Crick or Harold Crock or something?
I understand it's all a metaphor for facing the reality of death, the fact that it will come at us whether we like it or not and we might as well die for something and that's fine, the film has its cake and eats it too because they do wrap it all up neatly in the end but why make the entire plot, metaphor or not, hang on the simple task of changing one single letter.
Also at a certain point the writer goes from narrating what is happening as it's happening to being able to make things happen, like the phone ring, by typing 'the phone rings a third time'.
These inevitable plot holes, in a script such as this, are only minor niggles and actually I really enjoyed watching it this time round and laughed all the way through it.

8 out of 10 pots of hip greek yoghurt sucked up by a scruffy yet brilliant literature professor
Points from The Wife - 7 out of 10

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