The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, December 07, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Stranger Than Fiction

Full review behind the jump

Stranger Than Fiction

: Marc Forster
: Zach Helm
: Lindsay Doran
: Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, Tony Hale

Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) writes brilliant novels about ordinary people with rich inner lives who die horribly unfair deaths. It is the sort of thing that makes the literary set adore you but makes you a malfunctioning human being, and Eiffel is now deeply malfunctioning over Harold Crick (Will Ferrell).

Harold Crick is the main character of her long-delayed novel
Death and Taxes.


Harold Crick is an auditor for the IRS who wakes up one morning to find the voice of Kay Eiffel in his head, belittling his life of solitude and numbers and doling out capricious humiliations and judgments. And he resents it. He particularly resents it when the voice tells him the cold hand of Death awaits, but won’t reveal how or when, because it doesn’t know yet.

These two worlds are equally real to the moviegoer in
Stranger Than Fiction, a sublime human comedy that poses big questions about the power and purpose of storytelling, and our ability to smash the confines of our own lives if we’re willing to gamble something better awaits, and then answers them with downright adorable wit and sense of the possible. It blurs the worlds of Karen Eiffel and Harold Crick and sits back to enjoy the results, even as the world blurs in her own head while she tries to beat one more novel out of the rocks. The point is that we stop trying to sort out what’s “really” happening and what isn’t, and soak in the whole experience.

It’s easy to despise an auditor for the IRS – the rabble-rousing bakery owner (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who pays some, but not all of her taxes as a form of protest certainly derives satisfaction from punishing him. But for us it’s easy to like Crick, not just because of Ferrell’s soft and troubled face, but the way the movie puts us into his heart. Prim little graphics unfold themselves from his skull, shuffling and sorting as he calculates his way through the day. Zeus put forth Athena fully-formed from his head, Harold Crick puts forth sums and balance sheets – they are what he has in life to give, or so he thinks.

When Eiffel’s voice invades his thoughts, it sets off a chain reaction. Or maybe the chain reaction started when his watch stopped – that’s how Eiffel would have it. But she can hardly be considered reliable – she’s hanging out by rainy overpasses and in hospitals, forcing herself towards human misery as she feebly clutches at her sweater and an assistant from her publisher (Queen Latifah) waits patiently at her side. There’s divine agony on her face. Why, after all the creations she’s snuffed over the years, is it so hard for her to kill Harold Crick?

It’s just as unknowable why it has been so hard for Harold Crick to live up until now. But when faced with the prospect of imminent mortality, Crick starts to make choices. Some embarrassing, some peculiar, some of them downright lovely. And the little graphics appear less and less, and he looks at the world around him more and more. Can his will to live actually save his life? In a world of treacle and clichés, it is a cleansing experience to see a movie that believes its own message with every breath.

Director Marc Forster has also made the wrenching Monster’s Ball and the heartwarming Finding Neverland – despite the vast differences in tone and setting, in all these stories you can feel him looking for the love and the hope and the joy. This seems like a small thing, but when you consider how many modern filmmakers settle for pop sugar rush, or some idiotic posture of cool, or a kind of mechanical perfection of plot elements, this unashamed warmth is a tonic.

It marries up to Zach Helm’s script perfectly. In a way the path has been blazed for this work by Charlie Kaufman, and the funny and fractured universes he created in life-bending pictures like Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Helm’s writing has the same appreciation for the minute, the same affection for how all of us blunder through our lives – but there’s something more pure, almost child-like, at the heart. He does not paint as rich a portrait, it suits a simpler mood, but on that level provides ample satisfaction.

One of the most delicious twists the movie has to offer is the character of Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), a teacher of literature who provides therapeutic assistance for Harold Crick. Unlike the film critic character in M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water, whose job it was to infantilize storytelling tropes and sneer at them, Hilbert revels in the form. His gift is to accept Crick’s claims at face value, and attack them with all his savvy. He analyzes, he probes, he studiously eliminates possibilities about the nature of Crick’s story: (“On a scale of one to ten, what are the chances that you’ll be assassinated?”)

What he’s saying without saying is that we all know that there’s fate and free will, each attempting to assert their voice in the story of our lives. And if we do tell many of the same stories over and over again, it’s only because we have so many of the same fears and desires. But the telling still matters. If you boiled away enough of Stranger Than Fiction you’d find it’s not an unusual story. But why reduce it? Taste as much as your appetite can take – that’s the best way.


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