Monday, December 15, 2008

Recent Viewings: "Stranger than Fiction"

A couple of conceits to which I do not characteristically cotton: meta-fiction and writers writing about writers. By all rights, I should have hated Stranger than Fiction, a film built almost entirely upon those concepts. The story of a bland IRS agent who learns he’s a character in an author’s novel-in-progress and sets out to confront his creator, this is a movie that tries to tackle weighty, intellectual matters but comes off like Charlie Kaufmann Lite. I’m not a huge fan of the original recipe, so again, this is a project I should have despised.

And yet, somehow, I didn’t. In fact, I liked quite a few things about
Stranger than Fiction. A lot of that has to do with the cast. It’s tough to go completely wrong when you’ve got the likes of Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Queen Latifah and Tony Hale backing up Will Ferrell in the lead.

That’s another cinematic trope I usually dislike – a gifted comedian trying to “prove himself” by playing a straight role – but Ferrell doesn’t overreach. I think the key to Ferrell’s success here is that he doesn’t come off as desperate for our approval. I can definitely appreciate why a comic actor would welcome a chance to play a role that doesn’t require him to flop around the screen half-nude and hollering. The trouble is, too many of these guys overcompensate when they’re finally given that chance. That mindset can manifest itself many ways: Jim Carrey and Robin Williams over-emote shamelessly in their quests for Oscar, Steve Martin shifts into pretentious
New Yorker mode and Martin Short and Chris Elliott hop the thin line between wacky and creepy in their Law & Order guest spots.

Ferrell avoids all of those pitfalls by playing a dull, aggressively average working stiff, a job more challenging than it might sound on paper. Give this part to Carrey or Williams, and we’d have the mundanity of the working world beaten mercilessly into our skulls. A quiet Carrey performance is just as obnoxious as an over-the-top one, because we can so clearly see him straining – and failing – to come off as a regular person. Ferrell just acts like a normal guy (as I suspect he probably is when he’s off camera) and it’s entirely believable.

In fact, it’s to Ferrell’s great credit that the most effective parts of
Stranger than Fiction come when the movie sets aside its meta conceits and nurtures the budding romance between Ferrell’s IRS stooge and Gyllenhaal’s radical left-wing baker. Their moments together are rather lovely and never feel forced. There’s very little about their relationship that goes outside the realm of cliché, but there’s a welcome richness to their exchanges, especially the scene where Ferrell woos his lady with an acoustic rendition of Wreckless Eric’s “(I’d Go the) Whole Wide World.” If you cut out Thompson’s tortured novelist and Hoffman’s bemused literature professor (both fine performances in their own right) and stripped away the overarching theme of fiction and reality, you’d have a pedestrian but pleasant romantic comedy. It would be a trifle, to be sure, but many movies have been built on flimsier premises.

As it is, we get a lot of reasonably interesting, mildly frustrating meditations on the power of fiction, the joy of self-discovery and the very nature of existence, all crammed into a movie a little too lightweight to support such heady pontification. It all works well enough, but it’s a bit of a shame to think how much more – or less – might have been done with the tools at hand.

- Ira Brooker

1 comment:

  1. Ira! You have a blog--I'm very excited about this. You are a wonderful writer. Blogs can be self-righteous, boring crap (I'm sure mine is too), but your your writing is so good, and your concept of sharing art, films, books, etc. publicly is the type of concept that I look for in blogs--I will surely visit often.
    One last thing, I thought 'Stranger Than Fiction' was superb.