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Friday, August 29, 2008

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Art: Banksy - World's Best Artist?

Arrrgh! How can I say someone is the world's best artist - it's totally subjective! Well I'm saying it and you all can just kiss my grits if you don't like it. Better yet, nominate me someone else. Banksy just put 5 new pieces up in New Orleans to commemorate Hurricane Katrina or as history will call it - the great Bush Clusterfuck (part 12) of 05. They are typically brilliant - what would one expect from the mysterious best artist in the world?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

TV : Matthews and Olbermann - Can Two Grown Men Share a Broadcast Together Without Driving Each Other Crazy?

Matthews and Olbermann: "No I will NOT insert my neck into your grip of death!"

My wife is at the convention in Denver this week which means she ran into Sean Penn in the elevator ("He looked angry - that's so sexy") spoke to Al Franken on the convention floor hotel lobby and got to feel the electric charge of Hillary's speech last night. But by not watching it on television she missed out on this exchange between a seemingly drunk and disheveledly rambling Chris Matthews and a bemused Keith Olbermann with Dick Martin doppelganger Steny Hoyer waiting in the wings. Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

TV Review: Mad Men Season 2 is What Great Television is All About

Great television to me is when the medium is used to take film and stretch it out in time until it has the depth and texture of a great novel. The Wire did this, as did The Sopranos at its best and The Shield. Mad Men, which is at the midpoint of Season 2 is right there at that sweet spot and this weeks episode "The New Girl" is one of the best hours of TV all year. It encapsulates what's different from Season 1, itself stellar.

The first season was very much centered on the work life and play of Jon Hamm's sleek Don Draper, the creative director of early 1960's ad agency Sterling Cooper and the course of Peggy Olsen who goes from secretary to copywriter under Draper's tutelage. Elisabeth Moss, who plays Peggy, is every bit as deserving of an Emmy nom as Hamm and lets hope they catch up with her next year. Peggy with her enormous eyes is emerging in her own way as a lead character and counterpoint to Don - she's capable of seeming coltish and inscrutably cold all at once.

This is deepened in the current season which takes us from work into the family lives of these characters. Don's marriage to gorgeous Betty (played to heartbreaking perfection by the delectable January Jones) seems to teeter on the edge from moment to moment with both husband and wife too aware of how easy it is to break their vows. Peggy's family which is proud and dissaproving of her all at once. Slimy Pete Campbell played by Vincent Kartheiser with weaselly perfection crows about his wonderful sperm to his crestfallen wife upon learning that he isn't to blame for their difficulty conceiving.

This week brought us two scenes that are fulcrums on which the entire series will pivot, and on which Don and Peggy spin. First is the advice Don gives Peggy in a flashback - a keystone as it turns out to both of their characters: "Get out of here and move forward. This never happened... it will shock you how much it never happened."

Phew I got goosebumps when he said it.

Then there was Peggy's scenes with the mercenary Bobbie, a woman who has a measure of power and independence in a man's world but who still finds herself helplessly entangeled with Don. Bobbie sizes Peggy up and tells her she should act like an equal to Don to get ahead, but "... you can't be a man. Don't even try. Be a woman. It's powerful business when done correctly."

When Peggy firmly asks for the bail money she fronted Don earlier in the episode and he pays up sheepishly she says "Thank you Don", a big change from her usual "Mr. Draper."

The theme of the show gets stronger and deeper throughout the season and the episode: we invent ourselves. We have the power to be who we want to be, not who we are. The problem is knowing what it is we want to be.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Car Design: Pininfarina's Hyperion is No Hype

Pininfarina has been going through an especially difficult period of late, suffering from cash woes and most recently the untimely death of young CEO Andrea Pininfarina in a road accident. The storied design firm still has a future as long as Ferrari (and by extension parent company FIAT) sees value in their work. Recently they unveiled the Ferrari California, which I gave a lukewarm review of. Over the weekend at Pebble Beach the last car to be completed under Andrea Pininfarina’s stewardship was introduced – a one-off for private collector and filthy rich person Roland Hall based on Rolls-Royce’s Phantom Drophead.

Thankfully it’s a welcome addition to the firms storied legacy, and an improvement over the brutalist bulk of the original. The Hyperion features soft flowing boat-like forms stretched out to emphasize the substantial length. This is accentuated by the removal of the rear seats, the cant of the windshield and the moving of the windshield’s base back. You could land a small plane on the surface of the hood.

The side sculpting is expertly handled with a graceful curve arching over the front wheel-well to form a rib before settling into the flowing haunches at the rear fenders. Up front the setting of the classic Rolls grille is perfectly proportioned and punctuated by the comet shaped LED-studded headlamps. The lower air intake is not as graceful as the rest of the car would suggest - one of the few off notes.

The tapering decklid at the rear is reminiscent of classic past designs from both Pininfarina and Rolls and the clean execution is a pleasure to behold. The rear exhaust outlets echo the air intake at the front and like that intake they seem somewhat incongruous in so elegant a car.

Rich teak wood encircles the passenger compartment and there is a specially built Girard-Perregaux timepiece that can be removed from the dashboard and placed in a wristband to be worn as a watch.

The Pininfarina Hyperion is a stunning affirmation in the classic coach building tradition of the past. Here’s hoping that the successful aesthetics of the Hyperion auger well for the future of Pininfarina

Monday, August 18, 2008

Movie Review: Tati's Playtime Fascinates

Movie Review by Noah Mallin

Jacques Tati gave everything he had to 1967’s Playtime, at the time one of the most expensive movies ever made in France. For his trouble it was a commercial failure and a mixed-bag critically, closing the door on Tati’s reign as the master of postwar French comedy. Seen today on the new Criterion Collection remaster (or as Terry Jones points out, ideally in 70 mm) Playtime emerges as a unique masterpiece. It’s one of those movies that makes you laugh sometimes and you’re not even sure why.

It’s really three films in one, the first being an extended riff on modernist architecture as a tool of control. Yes it’s funny, and strange, and off-putting and fascinating and wistful. It’s like being raped by the Seagram’s Building. The mid section takes the anomie into a home patterned on the same show-all principles as the mid-century workplace. It’s the most alienating part of the film as the sound is entirely provided from the outside, as is the perspective. Part three is an elaborate farce set in an ultra-modern restaurant/nightclub – where people play. The external regimentation and behavioral modification imposed by the architectural style of the restaurant is gradually undermined by the increasingly anarchic people who interact with it.

This is heady stuff but it’s often breathtaking. The movie loosely follows a gaggle of American women tourists in group visiting Paris. What they are shown are a series of shopping opportunities in international style settings that could be buildings and hotels anywhere in the world. The “real” Paris is the flower seller on the corner who one woman tries to photograph - only to be foiled by French kids dressed like American greasers, Japanese tourists, and finally a fellow American who wants to take her picture while she’s taking the shot. The poor woman keeps getting puzzling glimpses of Parisian landmarks like the Eiffel Tower reflected in opening doors and advertising posters but she’s trapped with her group in these steel and glass boxes.

Tati’s alter-ego M. Hulot is on hand weaving his way through the film reflected by look-alikes and mistaken for others. Just as the glassy buildings all reflect and refract images into multiples and duplicates Hulot is multiplied and duplicated. His unsuccessful attempt to keep an appointment is marked by elegant chrome and leather chairs that mimic gastrointestinal distress when they are sat on and a stunning vision of cubicle anticipating box-like offices on an open floor as seen from above – the kind of image Terry Gilliam built a career on.

There are other gags that imbed themselves in the cerebellum to be unpacked later – this is an incredibly dense film full of widescreen imagery with very few close-ups and a full busy frames. During Hulot’s visit to his old Army buddies apartment a man undresses obliviously in full view of the street through his windowed wall. We watch him through the glass at the same time we can see his female neighbor through her glass wall staring at her TV in interest. The witty framing makes it looks as if she’s watching her neighbor strip avidly.

The restaurant sequence features several giddy highpoints. A plate glass door shatters but the doorman keeps holding the knob and opening and shutting the “door” for patrons, the air conditioning makes a woman’s skin ripple like silk, a model airplane wilts like a Freudian nightmare.

The cinematography is luscious, as much as Tati is musing over the spaces we create and how they hem us in; he’s also as seduced by the Mies Van Der Rohe style buildings against the sky, the way the lights wink on at dusk, the sleek lobbies and furniture. The colors are steel grays, navy blues, myriad tones of slate – all of which sound like they’ll be flat but they vibrate with the intensity of a shimmering pool. The production design is never over-the-top. The same crested chair backs that look so cool when you first see them in the restaurant end up leaving crest imprints on the backs of men’s jackets. It’s a wonderful sly joke in a world where life was becoming increasingly production designed.

It’s intriguing and perhaps overly determinist to look at the film through the prism of the riots that would rock France and many other countries the following year. Like the patrons in the restaurant who begin to dissemble the architecture to make their own reality and who obediently dance to whatever tempo the band plays society feels like it teeters on the edge by the end of Playtime.

The last, short sequence of vehicles caught in a roundabout, with a carnival like tune playing on the soundtrack and a woman bobbing up and down on a motorcycle like a little girl on a carousel horse is delightful and haunting at the same time. Everything is restored to its manmade orderliness and controlled chaos, all of the machines and buildings and buses are children’s toys, designed by children with the arbitrariness of youth.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Movie Review: Charlie Wilson's War at War With Itself

Movie Review by Noah Mallin

The opening scene of Charlie Wilson’s War hits a giddy high that promises the kind of balls-out gonzo politics movie that Bulworth and a very few others have delivered. Texas Congressman Wilson, played by Tom Hanks, is ensconced in a hot tub with two strippers, a Playboy bunny, and a guy pitching a Dallas knockoff set in Washington DC. The whole time he keeps straining to figure out why Dan Rather is on the TV across the room dressed as a Mujahadeen. The rest of the movie has a hard time catching up with this intro.

Tom Hanks has gained a certain Mount Rushmore quality, and I don’t just mean the fleshiness of his jowls. He’s a modern Gary Cooper, the American icon who stands for mom and apple pie. I’m still not sure quite how it happened, probably somewhere between his “aw shucks I ain’t got a brain” turn in Forrest Gump and his everyman leader with a rifle role in Saving Private Ryan. So it’s nice to see him channel the Tom Hanks of Bachelor Party and TV’s Bosom Buddies.

That is to say that he’s an actor blessed with comic rhythms both goofball and martini dry, even as they’ve been misused in the Colonel Sanders’y misfire of the Coen Brothers flop The Ladykillers or left on the shelf in his dour big haired perf in The Da Vinci Code. It’s good to see him back, this time with a down home Texas swagger and a sly intelligence lurking in the recesses behind the folds of his puffy face. His famous charm is key to the Charlie Wilson character and it works, mostly better than the film which is directed by wunderelder Mike Nichols.

While the movie pretends to be a love story between Wilson and icy bible thumping texas millionairess Julia Roberts or between Wilson and the Afghan people, it’s really a romance between Wilson and gruff impolitic CIA wild card Phillip Seymour Hoffman. When those two meet up the sparks fly and they find a fun dizzying rhythm that lifts the whole film.

Unfortunately politics, stock footage and Roberts keep butting their way in. Roberts has a head of hair straight out of the Palookaville theater wig department but she wisely endows her character with bitchy self-righteousness. She’s developed more acting chops than were readily apparent at the beginning of her career. The flipside is that you don’t particularly want to spend time with her.

You do want to spend time with the wonderful Amy Adams as Wilson’s smart clipped assistant. She’s like a feisty self-aware Tracy Flick all grown up and in DC. Most of this is conveyed through Adams expert choices -- character on paper is more of a wisp.

Having read the entertaining book it was relatively easy for me to keep up but the hijinks keep grinding to a halt for awkward exposition. “Why are you telling me things I already know?” Roberts inquires with an impatient purr. Hank's doesn't respond "It's not for you, it's for that durn audience honey..." though he should.

Everything rushes to a conclusion and then slows again so that we get the point that rather than having fun watching Hanks be a charming boozing horndog and Hoffman be a rude boozing horndog, we should be thinking about the unintended consequences of our actions.

A better screenplay would have planted more seeds and allowed the thought to grow organically rather than to have it pop out of a character's mouth but that's not this film. In some ways it's too faithful to it's source material. The verbiage and overexplanations crowd out what works.

Still the offscreen cameos by John Murtha and Rudy Giuliani and scenes like a Hank's first meeting with a bug-planting Hoffman hint at the wacky darkness that could have been if they had just jettisoned those pesky facts and gone for all-out satire.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Design: Hooray for Monterey - Cool Cars at Auction

By Noah Mallin

Edmund's Inside line has listed the coolest cars coming onto the block at the upcoming Monterey Auction. The lineup this year is stellar so it's hard to pick just one of these let alone ten. Up top is a 1957 Chrysler show car the Diablo, built by Italy's Ghia and designed by the legendary Virgil Exner.

Down below is a 1939 Talbot-Lago, an incredibly rare barn find and a stellar example of prewar coachbuilding:

Music News: Soul Superstar Isaac Hayes Dies

An Appreciation by Noah Mallin

Isaac Hayes, the biggest star of latter-day Stax records and a pioneer of the smooth string-filled soul that would mutate into disco, has died. Hayes also found a second life on film and television, most memorably voicing Chef on TV's South Park - a role that brought him to the attention of a whole new generation of fans. His belief in Scientology led him to walk away from the ribald show in protest of an episode ridiculing the the L. Ron Hubbard founded group.

Hayes co-wrote several of the hit 60s singles of Memphis groundbreaking Stax records including "Soul Man' - made famous by Sam & Dave. His own music took a cue from white psychedelia, stretching out song lengths and slowing down tempos while his rich baritone purred and often spoke lengthy introductions. Though disco would speed tempos in the other direction, the long songs and thick arrangements were clearly ingredients and Hayes loverman style would be emulated most famously by Barry White.

Hayes sense of style was unparalleled - proudly bald and black, his image was as important as his music.

Hayes biggest hit was the smash "Theme from Shaft", from the film of the same name starring Richard Roundtree. The cross-format number one hit not only cemented Hayes stardom but also led to a string of soul and r & b singers like James Brown and Marvin Gaye turning to so-called "blaxploitation" flick soundtracks as sources of hits. The song won Hayes both a Grammy and an Academy Award.

As an actor in addition to South Park on television he had memorable roles in the South Park film, in John Carpenter's Escape From New York driving a Cadillac with chandeliers on its fenders and in the blaxploitation satire I'm Gonna Git You Sucka.

His best albums include the aforementioned Shaft, the double LP Black Moses, and teh fantastic 1969 Hot Buttered Soul which contains a definite version of Burt Bacharach's "Walk on By".

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Music News: Songwriter and Singer Robert Hazard Dies

An Appreciation by Noah Mallin

Back when Cyndi Lauper was going to be the superstar of the 80s and Madonna was a ho-bag writhing around in her undies, Lauper was riding a wave based on her debut album much of which consisted of cover songs. The least likely was "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" a very 80s femme freedom anthem that was originally written and recorded by Philadelphia songwriter and musician Robert Hazard. Hazard with his band The Heroes had his own hit with "Escalator of Life" in 1982.

Hazard, like Lauper's backing band The Hooters, was a regular on the Philly and South Jersey music scene and even as further success eluded him kept singing, writing and playing, moving to Florida and pursuing a country inflected folk sound.

"Escalator of Life" is a great lesser-known new wave gem with some very clever lyrics and of course "Girls" is a timeless classic. Below is "Escalator" and "Change Reaction."

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Movie Review: Chaplin Kills 'em in Monsieur Verdoux

Review by Noah Mallin

The story goes that the idea for Monsieur Verdoux, based on a real case, was given to Charlie Chaplin by Orson Welles. Chaplin neglected to credit Welles onscreen until after the film’s premiere in 1947 – just in time for an onslaught of negative reviews.

It’s easy to see what reviewers found so unsettling about the film in those immediate years after World War II. Though the meat of the plot is similar in essence to the kind of thing Britain’s Ealing studious turned out to such acclaim in the 50s – The Ladykillers obviously comes to mind, it’s delivered in a sandwich of social criticism that betrays deep cynicism about the war just ended and the many more to come.

This is not the sweet lovable Charlie of his classic work though he’s every bit as good at winning the audiences sympathy even when doing something rotten. So harsh is the ultimate judgment of the film that it contributed greatly to Chaplin’s blacklisting and estrangement from the United States.

Chaplin plays the title character, a former bank clerk now out of work thanks to the beginnings of the great depression. Unable to find work to support his crippled wife and young child he falls back on his charming way with women, older women of some means in particular. He then fleeces them for their money, usually dispatching them to the great beyond once his goal is achieved. He does a great bit of business throughout the film as he counts the money he gets from his victims, fingers whirring through the stacks of francs as only a bank clerk’s could.

That this is all quite funny is a testament to how great a comedian Chaplin is. His lilting voice, fastidious mustache (here long and thin- he’s no longer the little tramp) and trim compact frame are a constant contrast to his older, often larger marks. A hint of the social commentary to come is in his nonchalant use of an incinerator at the start of the film to hide the evidence of one of his victims – a queasy echo of the Nazi’s atrocities.

Of course complications begin to crop up – the police begin to catch on but more importantly a young Martha Raye is Charlie’s nest intended and she just won’t help him out at ll. Unlike his other victims she’s brassy and crude and less likely to take all her money out of the bank just because he tells her there’s a panic. Steve Martin’s interpretation of Inspector Clouseau in the execrable Pink Panther remake owes much to Chaplin's Verdoux, just as the loud brashness of Bette Midler finds some of it's genesis in Raye’s perf.

Chaplin discovery Marilyn Nash shows up halfway through the film and again at the end and there’s more heat with these two than with the token scenes with Verdoux’s family. Nash is utterly adorable in her floppy hat and hand me down clothes and gorgeously elegant in her limousine at the end. Chaplin can't seem to help but make eyes at her.

The film does go on a bit too long and the tonal shift into outright social criticism grinds the gears a bit. Chaplin’s insistence that his murders were only the response of a small businessman doing on a small scale what big business did all the time with millions still feels like a contrived excuse. Some things are still better shown than told. It’s a recasting of all we’ve seen in a completely different light. Still it adds an unusual element to the film and stamps it as the work of its genius writer/directer/star -- anyone else would have been told to reign it in. Though the effect is jumbled it still makes this film that much more treasurable - it's unique combination of elements like Verdoux, are irresistible to those that are prone to its charm, sting in the end or not.

Movie Review: Heartburn Inducing Heartbreak Kid

Review by Noah Mallin

The original version of The Heartbreak Kid was an all-American story of Charles Grodin trading up on his honeymoon from Jeannie Berlin to WASP goddess Cybill Shephard. The remake, starring Ben Stiller, is so loath to lay a glove on its leading man that it bends over backwards to try and explain why a guy would do such a rotten thing.

For one thing it’s more of a sideways trade in the new one. Stiller, looking like a constipated greyhound throughout, is cajoled into marrying by a suite of obnoxious types including pre-pubescenet twin boys who taunt him for being a “fag”, Rob Corddry who is too much of a prick to fulfill anyone’s notion of a best friend, and Stiller’s own father, played by Jerry Stiller – his own father.

Stiller the elder is outfitted with a Woody Woodpecker coif that looks like a colony of red dye number 2 was dispatched from the maraschino cherry factory, and a series of overbearing lines regarding “pussy.” His arc hits a stomach churning low in a Las Vegas hot tub with a topless lass whose grotesque huge fake mammaries bob upon the surface like discarded waterwings. Here at least is the root of Stiller the younger's evidently deep fear of all things woman.

He marries Malin Akerman, a gorgeous sunny-smiled blonde. The film then proceeds to use every centimeter of her delectable body as a talisman of fear and subjugation. No orifice is left unexplored in Stiller’s downright abject terror of this bombshell’s frank sexuality.

Watching the overexplicit sex scenes I was torn between the desire to tap Stiller out and take his place and the desire to throw a robe around the game Akerman and declare enough's enough already. I like nudity as much as the next guy but when it’s in the service of a punchline involving Stiller’s disgust at the thought of seeing more of her clitoris we’ve entered a zone that only a trained psychiatric professional can plumb.

The other attempts to make Akerman seem worth ditching – a massively deviated septum, no career ambitions, not the brightest bulb on the string, seem a bit petty and over-designed to draw attention away from the fact that the one with a real problem is Stiller. There is a glimpse of a real movie in the idea that even a va-va-voom looker like Akerman can seem lacking if the chemistry isn’t there – but this is overshadowed by the need to push her into a monstrous characterization that seems badly out of proportion. I felt sorry for the actress and the character.

Stiller instead finds comfort with Michelle Monaghan who is just as fetching as Akerman but in a more tomboy brunette fashion. More importantly she doesn't pressure him for sex. Monaghan generates chemistry all right, but it’s all on her own. She’s the only one who comes out of this mess unscathed but you want to shout at the screen like a horror film “Run run, before it’s too late! The guy can’t deal with a woman’s sexuality!”

It’s fascinating that a movie dedicated to so much graphic loathing of Akerman’s body is able to display so much of it and get an R rating from the MPAA. Were she spreading herself for sensuous pleasure rather than a punchline there’s no doubt this would be a porn, I can only imagine what was left on the cutting-room floor.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Movie Review: Shoot 'Em Up Proves There's Truth in Advertising

Review By Noah Mallin

Clive Owen has a deep honking voice that’s like Alan Rickman with a headcold. In Michael Davis' giddily hyperviolent Shoot ‘Em Up it’s used primarily to deliver the kind of bon mots found in a mid 80s Schwarzenegger vehicle , but no matter. The filmmakers, star, and probably the hair and makeup people are well aware of this. In fact, hyper self-awareness is the hallmark of this film – a cynical discourse about cynicism in which everything save a giant winking eye is deployed as a tipoff that all involved are in on it. On a certain level this is a much more committed spoof on a typical Michael Bay flick starring say, Nicholas Cage, than Team America was.

The set-up is absurdity as meta-narrative, with carrot-munching hitman Owen (resemblance to Bugs Bunny is purely intentional) and lactating hooker (don't ask) Asia Argento (untroubled by much in the way of acting chops) becoming surrogate mum and dad to a baby wanted by an anti-gun Democratic Presidential candidate for it’s life-giving bone-marrow. With me so far?

The pro-gun folks want the baby dead so that they can stop the anti-gun folks from gaining power and they’ve hired a scenery demolishing (in every way) Paul Giametti to lead an endless serious of counter-hitmen against baby and quasi –parental units.

The filmmakers fully revel in the incongruity of an ultra violent Hong Kong style shootout flick which purports to be in favor of gun control. It helps that the pacing and editing keep everything moving at a good, ahem, clip, so just as you’re saying “Oh, C’mon!” Another absurdly balletic feat of pistolry unfolds before your eyes. Unlike a typical Jerry Bruckheimer/ Michael Bay crapfest it’s also possible to discern who is shooting who and where in every scene.

As the setpieces mount (an aerial sequence with parachute wearing assassins is one of several highlights, as is a demonstration of the proper time to unbuckle your seatbelt in a collision) so does admiration for the sheer balls it takes to see this giddy farce through to its conclusion.

Tonally there is a sweet tang of mid 80s b-movies such as John Carpenter’s They Live or The Hidden – the sweet smirk of over the top silliness primed with low-budget violence. There are knowing references to other cinematic gunslingers throughout – from Eastwood to Tarantino to John Woo – for cinephiles who are tuned in to that sort of thing. The scene where Owen tenderly explains the workings and parts of a pistol to the delighted infant is a hoot. So are the constant musings on whether guns are phallic substitutes and other stuff usually left to undergrad classes with titles like “Sam Peckinpah and Impotence: The Gun in Cinema.”This is without even venturing into the love scene that is punctuated with multiple gunshot wounds to the baddies.

This is not a film for the masses but if you’re the sort that chuckles at a gratuitous extra spurt of fake blood or the sight of a stairwell full of endless thugs in suits dutifully running upstairs to hit their target (not the only time this film brings to mind the Fistful of Yen sequence in Kentucky Fried Movie) this ones for you.

Movie Review: Stranger Than Fiction - Not So Much

Review by Noah Mallin

Film rarely does justice to literature. Stranger Than Fiction gives it a go and it’s a pleasant, even warm experience in the hands of a fine cast and competent director Marc Forster. What it fails to do is to thrill with the possibility of the written page or indeed the moving picture.

Some critics dismissed this film as Charlie Kaufman lite and it’s easy to see how they came to that conclusion. The set-up – a boring IRS auditor begins to hear his innermost thoughts and his everyday actions narrated by a British woman’s voice who eventually reveals his impending doom – is right up Kaufman’s alley.

The difference is that Kaufman, as in Adaptation, is compulsive about exploring every nook and cranny of implication embedded in his high-concept screenplays – something screenwriter Zach Helm resolutely doesn’t do. To be fair this may never have been their intention – much of the film’s pleasure is in spending time with the cast, giving it an endearing hangout flick quality. To make this work the shaggy dog nature of the story ought to come to the fore as in David O. Russell’s similarly absurdist I Heart Huckabees. Forster takes his premise deadly seriously though, which leaves us with yet another Hollywood film that lectures us on the Importance of Living.

Will Ferrell is curiously button-eyed and doughy as the numbers obsessed auditor – he’s like a glum teddybear. The movie throws him cupid-lipped, tattooed, be-dimpled Maggie Gyllenhaal at her most appealingly fierce and goofbally as his love interest, a baker who refuses to give the government tax money for things she doesn’t believe in. There are a few warm sparks of repartee between these to but the film never gives them the space to get that fire going in a satisfying way. Having thrown them together there just isn’t enough for them to do in the weak screenplay.

Dustin Hoffman has become the go-to guy for off-kilter wisdom of the elders and he comes through as the literature prof recommended by hilariously prim shrink Linda Hunt. Hoffman is terrific to watch, his scenes with Ferrel have a satisfying crackle that never seems to find a place anywhere else in the film. Again a rhythm is established but it gets lost between the plot machinations.

Less successfully is the teaming between Emma Thompson – wonderfully twitchy and tetchy as the author of the book in which Ferrel’s Harold resides – and Queen Latifah as some kind of assistant that feels more like a storytelling device than an actual character.

Forster is still too polished and Hollywood a director to find the weirdness underlying much of the material here. His illustration of Harold’s number mania is cute but also overly familiar – Fight Club and A Beautiful Mind were here first. More importantly, it’s a fussy bit of business that adds nothing to the film – the money and time spent on the effects would have been better used on a third draft of the screenplay. The big emotions that the characters finally reveal feel unearned – especially Thompson's. There isn’t enough struggle against fate from Ferrel (oh to see Spike Jonze at work with this) and Gyllenhaal brings tons of heart to a role that remains resolutely more idea than character.

Still, Stranger Than Fiction is a pleasant enough diversion, nowhere near as serious as it would like to be but not a disastrous mess either. As a trifle it does in a pinch, too bad the title is a tease. A little more strangeness would have done a world of good.