Taking the existentialism of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovitch, Marc Forster's schizophrenic slide through the surreal, with drama-comedy Stranger Than Fiction, inhabits the head of an inspiration-starved novelist, played by Emma Thompson, who, in turn, comes to inhabit the head of a bland and colourless IRS inspector, played by Will Ferrell, who, it transpires, is actually the lead character in her latest, and severely troubled, book Death And Taxes. Hearing the author's voice as a running narration to his everyday life - an unstoppable and implacable invasion of his mind at various and un-welcome junctures of the day - poor Harold Crick realises that he is governed by the power of a page-turning tale and his own destiny is, therefore, at the whim of an increasingly anxious writer struggling to steer a path through her own imagination to bring her masterpiece to fruition. Compelled to seek the help of Dustin Hoffman's literary lecturer to establish some sort of explanation for his dilemma, Crick just finds that his situation is spiralling into a farce of supernatural proportions. But what makes this uncomfortable situation even more pressing is the fact that he hears his creator mulling over the means and methods of eventually killing him off and so begins his quest to find her before the book's climax, and his death - a quest that is as much inward-searching as it is out, with Crick finally finding the soul, the happiness and the sheer purpose to his life that he had been lacking, in the process.
Doesn't sound like laugh-a-minute stuff, does it?
And nor is it. Ferrell's meteoric rise in popularity, bolstered by the likes of Talladega Nights, may have brought the multiplex crowds in, but the film that confronted them would most certainly not have been what they were expecting. Channelling the comic actor's talents into a very narrow stream of humour-by-circumstance - his reactions to the voice in his head that no-one else can hear, for instance - keeps the hilarity of the scenario ticking over, but only just. Ferrell is on very subdued form here and the film is no less effective for it. With a mind-bending plot that wraps up the comedy with ropes of fantastical tragedy, Zach Helm's screenplay opts to keep things playfully character-based and far less frivolous than the material may perhaps have suggested. Crick's career goes into a terminal nosedive with all these fatalistic interruptions and things he would ordinarily have overlooked suddenly come to mean much more, in that time-honoured, last-chance-at-salvation fashion. Soul-searching, love and life redemption soon become the order of the day, but in Forster's capable hands and effortlessly conveyed via a cast that either try something different from their norm - Ferrell especially - or simply coast through in the enjoyment of a great off-the-wall character and a smart script - Hoffman, having a ball - the film embraces its own weirdness with an abundance of style and a quirky little smattering of charm. Some of the best, though also the daftest, moments come courtesy of Hoffman's knowledgeable, intellectually acute and verbally dexterous professor, who gleefully delves into the machinations of Crick's situation with terrifically comical aplomb. There is a great scene in which Hoffman's Prof. Hilbert bombards our protagonist with a lengthy list of possible plots that this mysterious writer may have incorporated him into, assessing, in effect, what type of “story” his life has been part of.
Of course, all of this is rather irreverent and silly, the manner in which Crick goes about seeking his answers is avant-garde and hardly what a normal person would do if they heard strange voices in their head. But the film strikes such a tone of pleasant bizarreness that it almost works. Whilst the characters are likeable enough to maintain interest, they don't necessarily acquire our sympathies, though. Crick is so eminently mundane in his lifestyle that it is hard to warm to his fledgling attempts to strike out and establish new goals and relationships - his discoveries somewhat blunted when they should have been cause for celebration. Every time he begins to act more naturally - shouting out in fear and confusion at the voice echoing inside his head, making cringe-worthy moves on the cafe-owning woman he is investigating for tax evasion (Maggie Gyllenhaal's Anna) or reacting wildly to a truly deranged house-invasion - Ferrell seems to realise that such emotions are alien to Harold and quickly reels them back in before anything too conventionally madcap can ensue. It makes for a sometimes frustrating characterisation. But, having said that, Ferrell still brings a strange sort of depth to the role. I say strange because Crick's persona is so inherently odd to begin with, so empty and lacking in warmth and empathy that practically any sort of emotional complexity would be a worthy addition, yet once he starts off on his odyssey of love and life redemption the results, though welcome, are still eerily vague. He is like a shy child wrapped up in a man's body, a veritable blank canvas of human feelings and social connectivity just waiting for the details to be filled in. The story sees to it that his development is off-kilter and rather enforced upon him against his will, and in this respect, Ferrell's subdued attitude and half-formed reactions to the world around him are uniquely captivating.
The screen-clown-turned-serious is nothing new. With the likes of Robin Williams, Jim Carey (in the afore-mentioned Eternal Sunshine) and even Steve Martin in the consistently underrated LA Story, Will Ferrell joins the comic-throng to explore new performing avenues. This isn't to say that he ditches his inanity and wildness altogether - there are still plenty of his antics to tickle the funny-bone - but he does deviate far enough away from his own established shtick to make the beleaguered Harold Crick a minor stepping stone in his resume. Set-pieces that stick in the mind are the unexpected home-renovation, the nice-but-embarrassing journey on the bendy-bus with Anna and just about any scenes shared with Hoffman, who has now reached a stage in his career where he can merely turn up on set and assume any identity, any persona with absolute integrity and a totally relaxed air of pure showboating class. Unlike that other Hollywood stalwart, Jack Nicholson, Hoffman injects only enough of his own personality and ego into a part to spark some life into it, and then he travels with the character rather than absorb it, clone it and spit out the same smug old thing we've seen a hundred times before.
On the other hand, Emma Thompson, normally quite attractive (at least as far as I'm concerned, anyway) gets an ugly-makeover here and plays the anxious, highly-strung author with a genuinely on-edge performance. Harried by her publishers and pushed to emotional extremes by severe writer's block, Eiffel is snappy, cutting and bound-over by her own creative instincts to get the job done. Totally unaware of the trans-dimensional power of her work-in-progress, she soldiers on with an increasingly paranoid desire to kill off her lead character. Her narration throughout the early part of the film belies the true nature of her intentions and it is quite clever the way that her own plight is actually more concerning to us than Crick's initially comedic dilemma. Chain-smoking and suffering from a lack of sleep, she comes to epitomise the tragic would-be suicide, and the arrival of Queen Latifah's largely superfluous publisher-assigned assistant only aggravates her plight still further. Sitting out in the rain and trying, in vain, to concoct the correct way in which to assassinate her main man moves the plot into a darkly welcome direction, layering in a level of torment that is strangely fascinating. But, despite being a cruelly intriguing element of the story, Eiffel's descent into melancholia still runs the risk of further alienating the viewer who has come into the film without prior warning. The mood of the third act takes on a very doom-laden attitude that is a risky gamble for a movie that was initially marketed as a mainstream comedy. Harold's death, it seems, may be absolutely vital to the survival of the literary classic that Eiffel's book is turning out to be.
The love interest that comes to mean so much to the confused and reticent Crick provides ample opportunity for Maggie Gyllenhaal to shine, even if, ultimately, the situation dovetails into exactly the type of sappy, sugar-tainted formula that Marc Forster seemed to be sidestepping at the outset. Abrasive and reluctant to give Crick's symbol of authority a break for quite a lengthy spell, her eventual falling for his childlike persistence is, nevertheless, clichéd and pretty standard. However, such a theme is required and does not feel all that out of place given the light and dark, yin and yang balancing act that Zach Helm's writing conjures. Their pairing is highly unlikely but, at least, allows for some cosiness to slip through the cloud of surrealism, though the protracted moment when Crick plays guitar and croons to her on the sofa is an icky misstep.
For me, personally, the film loses its edge during the slightly predictable middle section and then kind of struggles to gain its wayward personality again by succumbing to a more mainstream approach. Although not a big, broad comedy, there are still moments that made me laugh out loud, though these usually revolved around Ferrell's inane expressions to the lunacy taking place around, and to him - in the presence of Tom Hulce's Human Resources boffin and, certainly, Hoffman's erudite scholar, for instance. The mood-swings that Forster presents make the story a little uneven with some of those long scenes of Crick insipidly wooing Anna and their tentative romance coming over as dull and un-affecting, one smart “flowers” gag notwithstanding. Another element that, at first, seemed interesting but then overplayed itself is the use of on-screen graphics to highlight Crick's strict by-the-numbers lifestyle, which, if I'm honest, proved a touch distracting from the film at large. Still, on the whole, I enjoyed Stranger Than Fiction for its mind-warping plot and simple message. It feels unusual, even though it ultimately travels down a well-trodden path. But for those expecting a laughter-fest, this will prove to be a big disappointment. However, for Ferrell-fans and for those who like a story that takes an unorthodox approach to a common theme, this is still a smart enough diversion from the established rom-com or drama-comedy pattern to be worth checking out.
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