Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Stranger than Fiction


Sweet Love Story

I can’t say I’m a big Will Ferrell fan. He seems to be the modern day Chevy Chase, an actor playing himself and taking whatever role comes across his agent’s desk. He has the goofy dork thing down pat, but doesn’t ever challenge himself--until now. Stranger Than Fiction still has Ferrell playing to type, but it’s a much meatier role than he is used to. Add a good director, an unusual script, a fine supporting cast and you have all the ingredients for a good movie--which Stranger Than Fiction definitely is.

IRS auditor Harold Crick (Ferrell) is an anal-retentive numbers guy. He counts everything. One morning he hears a woman’s voice who seems to be narrating everything he does in excellent prose. This causes him to seek help, first from a therapist, who recommends he see literary expert Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman). Meanwhile, eccentric author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is having trouble killing off her lead character in her next book--Harold Crick. Harold’s boring life suddenly gets better as he meets wild thing Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), his latest audit. Can Harold make the most of his life before Kay kills him off?

What makes this film really work is the solid chemistry between Gyllenhaal (World Trade Center) and Ferrell (Talladega Nights). She hates him at first (“Get bent, tax man!”), but we all know what that means. They seem drawn together, and there is an amazingly erotic scene involving a cookie and a glass of milk that is sexier than you might expect. Gyllenhaal is great here, playing a free spirit with a heart of gold. She is the perfect counterpoint to Ferrell’s uptight dweeb.

This relationship is so good I wished it was the main thrust of the story. The other stuff involving the Hoffman and Thompson characters is fine (and has to be there to propel the story forward), but I wanted to see more of Ferrell and Gyllenhaal. Their thread is much more compelling and deserved more screen time.

Special mention should go to Zach Helm’s interesting and thought-provoking script. This is definitely Twilight Zone material, albeit with a lighter tone. It’s not something you see everyday in a mainstream film, and I was glad to see it produced for the silver screen. This concept could have been turned into a very dumb comedy, but instead we get a sweet, gentle and introspective take on life, love and what really matters. Is it more important to complete a literary masterpiece even if it kills someone? Especially if that someone is a genuinely good person?

Director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Stay) is building an interesting resume. Any film he has directed is worth watching and Stranger Than Fiction is no exception. He seems interested in well developed characters and offbeat scenarios, something I’ll always pay money to see. Here’s hoping he maintains the high bar he keeps setting for himself.

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