Film-Forward Review: [STRANGER THAN FICTION]

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Directed by: Marc Forster.
Produced by: Lindsay Doran.
Written by: Zach Helm.
Director of Photography: Roberto Schaefer.
Edited by: Matt Chessé.
Music by: Britt Daniel & Brian Reitzell.
Released by: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
Country of Origin: USA. 113 min. Rated PG-13.
With: Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah & Emma Thompson.
DVD Features: Deleted & extended scenes. Funny on-set moments. Behind-the-scenes featurettes. Optional English & French subtitles. Optional French audio.

Seemingly inspired by a passage from Lord Byron, this quirky and fantastical 2006 comedy about an office drone who discovers he’s a doomed character in a novel extendedly riffs on the relationship between people and narrative convention in a manner more sophisticated than most studio films. Though witty and heartfelt, Stranger Than Fiction screams “symbolism,” given that Byron’s work Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage provides the first name of the protagonist, as well as the movie’s numerous allusions to the fields of math and science through its visualizations of IRS agent Harold Crick’s perception of the world as a constant set of numbers, figures, and processes (whether he’s counting steps, arranging his tie, or just at his accounting job). While not entirely egregious, this trait undercuts the film’s ultimate impact.

As Harold, Will Ferrell successfully demonstrates his dramatic range, perfectly embodying what has always been a component of his comedic persona: the repressed hysteria of the subconsciously bored, average American worker. In such scenes as Harold’s discovery of the omnipresent narrator (Emma Thompson, well-cast in the role of the angst-filled novelist), Ferrell walks a fine line, subtly balancing his tragicomic performance. Indeed, much of the more humorous moments are provided by the supporting cast, including Dustin Hoffman as an eccentric literature professor helping Harold decipher what kind of story he’s in and the luminous Maggie Gyllenhaal as Ana Pascal, a baker Harold is auditing, and with whom he falls in love. Protesting against the government, she refused to pay 22% of her taxes.

Despite owing much to the existentialism of The Truman Show and the satire of American Beauty, a similar kind of half-hearted, mixed-message stab at anti-establishment sensibilities like that of Ana’s hampers Fiction’s considerable strengths. Its insistence on the need to overcome life’s futility with the resources that might help, and not overwhelm, one’s efforts is significantly belied by the movie’s ultimately conventional narrative and neat, glossy slickness.

DVD Extras: The behind-the-scenes featurettes, with the film’s collaborators praising each other, are a hagiography-fest. A few interesting sections, though, are director Forster’s explanation for wanting to use Chicago as the backdrop and writer Zach Helm’s professing his intent to emulate the late Hal Ashby’s style. (Ferrell does actually seem to have been inspired by Peter Sellers’ work in Ashby’s Being There.)

The deleted/extended scenes are the interviews glimpsed in the film of Emma Thompson’s novelist and another writer (in reality the movie’s visual effects designer), hilariously hosted – and partly improvised – by a clueless TV personality played by the great Kristin Chenoweth, sharing wonderful repartee with Thompson, whose novelist squirms in endured humiliation. (I recognized Chenoweth’s distinctive voice while watching the film, but she was, mostly, inexplicably, cut out – akin to dropping a Robin Williams cameo). Reymond Levy
February 28, 2007



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