You are being redirected - hold on tight!

Monday, August 4, 2008

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.

No comments: