Stranger than Fiction (2006)
Starring: Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, Emma Thompson, Tony Hale
Directed by: Marc Forster
I recently read an article online about how Hollywood is trying to reinvent the romantic comedy, as the old formula is getting stale and unpopular. I didn’t actually think much of the article, as it seemed to just create new, arbitrary groupings for existing romantic comedies, some of which didn’t seem that reinvented to me at all. But, one category of new romantic comedies did seem to make sense, and that was of the high concept romantic comedy.
I bring this up because for all its trappings, Stranger than Fiction is simply a romantic comedy disguised as a conceptual comedy. The movie was sold as a Kauffman-esque meta-comedy about an ordinary man, IRS auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), who one day learns that he is a character in a book when he hears the narrator’s (Emma Thompson) voice describe the mundane details of his life in the third-person omniscient tone. The voice isn’t talking TO Harold, it’s talking OF Harold. This is all very annoying to Harold, as you might imagine, until he hears the narrator foretell his imminent death, at which point matters become much more significant.
It’s a very interesting idea for a movie, a concept that immediately drew me to the movie. However, as the film progresses, you can tell that director Marc Forster is less interested with the high concept conceit of the movie, and much more interested in the meet-cute pairing of Crick and baker/tax evader Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Or, if Forster himself isn’t less interested in the central idea of the film, he certainly makes it less interesting for the audience.
On the one hand, this is rather unfortunate, because the movie had the chance to be something special. Ferrell does a superb job as an ordinary man who is forced to deal with the surreal, slowly accepting his fate while trying his best to overcome it. It is a wonderfully restrained performance that proves Ferrell need not play the amped-up buffoon character that he generally plays (not to say that he need abandon that character-type altogether, as they certainly make him a lot of money). There’s a lot of mileage in the idea of a character who realises that he is merely part of a story, trapped by the whims of the author and seemingly helpless to determine his own fate, but unfortunately, the movie fails to fully examine these ideas, choosing instead to focus on the romantic comedy aspects of the story.
On the other hand, the movie exhibits real charm both with the relationship between Crick and Pascal, and also in Crick’s overall demeanor and interactions. He is a seemingly boring character, but Ferrell infuses him with such genuine warmth that its easy for an audience to take to him, even before he experiences his life-changing catharsis. It’s a charming performance by Ferrell, on par with his role in Elf but less saccharin, making the movie an enjoyable enough experience.
Enjoyable, yet disappointing. While the relationship between Crick and Pascal is charming, it isn’t explored enough to be memorable or to escape the realm of cliche. The movie doesn’t focus enough on its meta-aspects to be especially clever, and the main theme it seems to want to present, that of the importance of art and the difficulties of the creative process, seem only tacked on to serve the ending. Which makes Stranger than Fiction a better-than-average romantic comedy, but not-more-than-average conceptual comedy, oddly making it too much of a think-piece for the typical date crowd, but not enough of a think-piece for the art house crowd.