Wednesday, January 03, 2007

An intelligent, funny piece of 'fiction'

“Stranger Than Fiction” has been marketed as the latest goofball Will Ferrell comedy, but those expecting the outrageous antics of “Anchorman” or “Old School” will be sorely disappointed.

Ferrell is one of those comedic performers that can rub people the wrong way, but this is the film that could win skeptics over. He joins the likes of Robin Williams and Jim Carrey as a comedian who can repress his comedic urges and deliver a dynamic dramatic performance.

The film represents the latest addition to what could be called the high concept, fantasy comedy genre. Think “Bruce Almighty” or “Click.” But “Stranger Than Fiction” is closer in tone to “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” than either of those films. This is a Hollywood film with an indie spirit.

Perhaps the best comparison though is “Groundhog Day.” Like “Groundhog Day,” “Stranger Than Fiction” takes a seemingly one-note concept (a man being followed by a voice narrating his life) and finds fresh and interesting ways to sustain the concept for the length of a film.

The movie starts out as clever satire of film narration, a device that if used improperly, and often is, can be disastrous for a film. A lesser movie would stop with Ferrell simply shouting at his unknown narrator, but screenwriter Zach Helm and director Marc Forster decide to explore the very meaning of literature and art.

Ferrell’s Harold Crick is a lonely, numbers obsessed IRS agent, who suddenly hears the narration of his life. Initially, just an annoyance he tries to ignore, Harold becomes rightfully concerned when the narration tells him things have been set in motion that will lead to his death.

Harold is unknowingly the character of a book being written by Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson, “Love Actually,” “Nanny McPhee”) an author known for killing off her lead characters. Luckily for Harold, she has a bad case of writer’s block that not even her assistant (the underused Queen Latifah) can help.

In one of the films most unexpected and oddly logically turns, Harold seeks the assistance of literature professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman). Hoffman, in a role that easily could have fallen into overblown caricature, impeccably captures the essence of a slightly eccentric academic.

This is one of Hoffman’s best recent performances. The way he inhabits his office, moves and speaks feels authentic. Anyone who has been to college has had some form of this professor.

Hoffman’s Hilbert is unsure of Harold sanity, but like most academics, is fascinated by a new challenge. He approaches Harold’s life like the unfinished book it is and tells Harold to look at the events of his life to discover if he is living a comedy or tragedy.

The comedy/tragedy pendulum swings on the interactions with one of Harold’s audits, bakery owner Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal, “Secretary”). What starts out as a hostile relationship develops into a quirky and surprisingly sweet romance.

Gyllenhaal is absolutely charming as Ana. She brings equal measures of sass and compassion to the character. The chemistry between Ferrell and Gyllenhaal is one of the joys of the film. Scenes like Ana teaching Harold how to eat milk and cookies and Harold timidly serenading Ana with the only song he knows how to play on guitar are nearly flawless.

While this may not be the heaviest drama and is certainly full of light comedy, Ferrell proves that he can dial down and give an appealing, human performance. Ferrell’s Harold, is a meek, withdrawn loner, who as a result of the narration begins to change his life. Ferrell creates a character you care about.

Helm has written a sharp, intelligent script that if given the wrong tone could’ve fallen into pretense or over sentmentality. Fortunately, Forster, whose previous films include “Monster’s Ball” and “Finding Neverland,” is perhaps one of the most versatile directors working today.

Forester finds the perfect balance between laughs, tears and intellect. He provides the film with a fun visual style, using animated graphs, charts and scales to visualize Harold’s world of number.

That leaves us with Thompson’s Kay, a writer obsessed with death, who often fantasizes about her own to find inspiration for her work. She is a chain smoking, recluse. Thompson has the film’s most challenging role. She is the tortured soul of the film that hides her sorrow behind caustic wit. Her depression is played straight and is at times painfully close to reality. It is a subtle performance of vacant stares and subdued gestures.

Kay is in many respects Harold’s mirror, but unlike Harold, she is well aware of her despair and channels it into her writing. Does this mean Harold truly is Kay’s creation? The film doesn’t explore the how or the why of its plot device, but simply allows it to quietly present questions about life and art. When Kay knows Harold is real can she knowingly kill him? What is more important a masterpiece or a human life?

How the film answers these questions is just about perfect. In a film that never does quite what you expect the ending is extremely satisfying and makes the whole all the better.

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