Film Review: "Stranger Than Fiction"

by McKayle Davison

I’m not ashamed – Will Ferrell is one of my favorite actors. What can I say, the man makes me laugh. I loved him as aging frat boy Frank the Tank in Old School. He was hysterical as pompous idiot Ron Burgundy in Anchorman. I even thought he was fantastic as naïve and precious Buddy in the slightly ridiculous Elf. His mere presence on screen is enough to make me giggle.

Needless to say, I was looking forward to Ferrell’s first semi-dramatic role, as IRS agent Harold Crick in Stranger Than Fiction, a PG-13 romantic “dramady” from director Marc Forster. Ferrell plays a desperately lonely, loveable fuddy-duddy set in his ways. He times his everyday routines to the second, counts the number of strokes when brushing his teeth – you get the picture. Nothing exciting ever happens to Harold. His days are largely filled with numbers and angry taxpayers. That is, until he begins to hear a voice narrating his life, predicting his imminent death.

The voice is that of Kay Eiffel, a suicidal author played believably by Emma Thompson. In fact, Thompson is a little too believable as the slovenly, suicidal Eiffel. She is the creepy lady you know who keeps used tissues up her sleeves and yells obscenities at pigeons. She putters around desperately trying to finish her book about, you guessed it, Harold Crick, without a clue that her subject is a real live person. Eiffel thinks that in order for her book to be complete, Harold must die – something the real Harold sees as a problem.

Clever graphics sometimes measure Harold’s progress, rolling back numbers as Howard brushes or counting his footsteps. This was my favorite part of the film – it emphasized the mathematical precision Harold had adopted as a way to fill the void in his life. Overall the film is visually dull, even boring, but this is a parallel to Harold’s life and it works. While it is in color, there are times when the film seems to be in grayscale, due to the sheer lack of anything bright.

Speaking of dull, Dustin Hoffman plays Jules Hilbert, a professor of literature who attempts to help Harold figure out what sort of book he’s in, and thus what will happen to him. I had high hopes, but Hoffman is completely wasted in this film, never really living up to the potential which he has shown so often in the past. Hilbert’s motivation is questionable, and he seems alternately concerned and indifferent about Harold’s plight, leading to some confusion for the viewer. Sure, Hoffman is the cute, quirky old man he has played in just about everything recently, but there is absolutely no depth to his character.

Harold’s life changes when he audits Ana Pascal, an anarchist baker played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal is as cute as a button, but she overdoes it a little in the beginning, inciting the patrons of her bakery to shout “TAXMAN” at Harold over and over again. Harold is instantly smitten for reasons unknown, which is unfortunate since Ana hates him. That is, until she doesn’t anymore. The viewer spends about fifteen minutes getting comfortable with the dynamic, when all of the sudden, hey, Ana likes Harold! The film spends too much time emphasizing how different they are, how much they dislike each other, only to abandon that angle completely and with little reason.

I spent a good part of the film confused. My biggest qualm was with Eiffel’s narration. Her voice follows Harold almost all of the time, except when he is looking for or talking about her. Convenient, right? We find out that she has been writing every mundane detail about his life, but whole chunks of time drop out when he is thinking about her, which is a little puzzling. Also, there is no explanation as to why Eiffel is so depressed, or why she feels it is necessary to kill Harold Crick. The amazing Queen Latifah plays her writer’s assistant, but she’s just frivolous. Her talent is wasted, too. In the film she serves to guide Eiffel to conclusions that she could just as easily have reached alone.

The film alternates between being cute and haunting. Ferrell is completely adorable, and instantly likeable. His Harold Crick embodies the old adage “nice guys finish last.” But at the same time, his loneliness is harrowing. It feels deep and real, and I was very impressed that Ferrell could play this so well. It was hard to get over my expectations for him – I half-expected him to strip down to his underwear and go running around the streets, as he does in most every film. He certainly had his funny moments, but he never went for the big laugh, a remarkable show of restraint in a man who can send me into hysterics with one look.

Throughout the film, I just couldn’t get over the sense of wasted talent. None of the characters ever really peak. It’s a great cast, but none of them, with the exception of Ferrell, give a memorable performance. It seemed that the makers of the film were relying on the sheer star-power of their cast, as if their presence on the screen could make up for a lack of substance. I was constantly questioning the characters’ motivation and asking, “Why would they do that?” It’s certainly worth seeing, but try not to expect much depth from the characters. What you see is what you get.

(Promotional photo of Dustin Hoffman and Will Ferrell in Stranger Than Fiction, courtesy of Columbia Pictures, a division of Sony Pictures. For the film's trailer, please see below.)

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