Friday, November 17, 2006

Movie Review: "Stranger Than Fiction"

Starring Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah and Emma Thompson
Directed by Marc Forster

Never mind the commercials you’ve been seeing on TV, advertising “Stranger Than Fiction” as another wacky Will Ferrell comedy, with the actor running about while the tune of “Don’t Bring Me Down” by Electric Light Orchestra plays in the background. Laughs are in fairly short supply during the movie’s nearly two-hour running time.

That in itself isn’t too big of a deal, as the movie would appear to be taking aim much more as a drama with humorous and romantic situations included. But what is a little harder to overlook is the sometimes overly clever screenplay and inconsistent pacing of the proceedings. It’s a two-hour movie that plays a lot longer.

“Stranger Than Fiction” plays out as Ferrell’s antithesis to Ricky Bobby, his overly emotional and intellectually challenged NASCAR driver from this summer’s hit film, “Talladega Nights.” In “Fiction,” he portrays Harold Crick, an emotionally bottled up IRS worker who lives a life of solitude, yet doesn’t really seem to dislike the path that his life has taken. There is a significant amount of order in his life, from the precise time he arrives at the bus stop every workday to the number of brush strokes he uses when cleaning his teeth. Clearly, this is a guy that may have a problem dealing with change.

That change comes about when Harold begins to hear a voice – a British woman’s voice, to be precise, complete with “a better vocabulary,” as Harold helpfully points out. But the voice doesn’t talk to Harold. Rather, it talks about him, narrating his mundane life while only Harold can hear the comments. Unbeknownst to Harold, reclusive author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is who Harold is hearing, as he is the central character in her latest book. She has no idea that her character is roaming out in society and thus has no qualms with killing off the poor sap. After all, knocking off the main character is a regular occurence in her books.

This proves to be a bit of a problem for Harold, however, who enlists the aid of Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) to determine why his life seems to be spiraling out of control. Hoffman, as the straight talking, yet slightly eccentric college professor, helps keep the rather unbelievable storyline on a more grounded level. His interactions with Ferrell are among the more well written and comical moments in the film.

To his credit, Ferrell steps away from his normal wild comedic roles to play a real introvert. It’s much the same kind of strategy that Jim Carrey employed when tackling “The Truman Show,” to which the film bears more than a passing resemblance in tone and attitude. He shows an ability to do drama, yet still maintain a comic presence. However, the character is maybe a bit too muted and his transformation in the film’s latter half takes some real leaps of faith.

While the script by Zach Helm does show some wit, emotion and invention, it’s limited and draws obvious comparisons to wittier, smarter and better material by noted screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (“Adaptation,” “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”)

Ultimately, “Fiction” struggles to maintain its whimsical tone, while still moving towards its seemingly inevitable conclusion. There’s quite a bit to like about the movie, from its eye catching production design to its earnest performances from Ferrell, Hoffman and Maggie Gyllenhaal as the romantic object of Harold’s eye. It’s just that a movie built on a creative, yet underdeveloped conceit should be more of a fizzy and fun concoction. Instead, this “Fiction” is a just a little flat.
Grade: C+
(Rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, sexuality, brief language and nudity.)

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