Sunday, October 29, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction (movie review)

It’s impossible to watch Stranger Than Fiction, a comic drama directed by eclectic filmmaker Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Monster’s Ball) without allowing one’s mind to wander to other, probably superior films.

The meta-movie/meta-fiction elements – cinematic and literary gamesmanship sure to tickle the minds of the English grad students and other smart folks in the crowd – are more than a tad reminiscent of Charlie Kaufman’s reality-smashing fictional worlds in Adaptation, Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

The film’s protagonist, I.R.S. agent Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), complains that his mundane, routine-dominated life suddenly feels a)out of kilter and b)controlled by unseen others. Thus he has much in common with the title character in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show. What’s more, the actor who plays Truman, Jim Carrey, leveraged that role to break out of his pure-comedy straitjacket in a manner not dissimilar to the career-altering options available to Ferrell in the wake of his convincing, surprisingly sympathetic performance in Stranger Than Fiction.

Then there’s the presence of Jules Hilbert, an English professor turned literary sleuth, played with the lightest, funniest soft touch by a dithering, muttering Dustin Hoffman: The existential detective he plays in David O. Russell’s similarly quirky comedy I Heart Huckabees might be Hilbert’s spiritual cousin.

Forster’s movie nevertheless occupies its own particular corner of Planet Whimsy, an entirely pleasant place to stay for 113 minutes, even if some of its occupants are a tad too precious and its creators – Forster and rookie screenwriter Zach Helm – don’t always adhere to rules of their own making.

Signifying those external forces bearing down on Crick’s life, the opening frames of the film travel from the heavens to the earth to the cityscape (Chicago) to the block to, finally, the apartment where the government drone works. On-screen graphs and charts – the movie’s least appealing visual effects – illustrate the like-clockwork structure of the man’s life.

He always applies the same number of toothbrush strokes to his teeth, takes the same number of steps to the bus and takes the same amount of time – 45.7 minutes – for a lunch break from his duties on the cube farm, where he spends days poring over tax returns. Crick doesn’t mind the sheer repetitiveness of his days, because it’s in his very DNA (hence that surname).

His routine is upended one day when he becomes aware of a strange sensation, the presence of a narrator in his life, a British-accented woman (Emma Thompson) who accurately details his every action, in real time. Even worse, she has predicted his demise: “Little did he know that this simple, seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death,” she says one day when he’s enroute to his bus. Perplexed and annoyed, he leans back and screams out his frustration at the skies, leaving passersby bewildered. Who, if anyone, is in charge of his universe?

Two psychologists, including the I.R.S.’s loopy in-house therapist (Tom Hulce), given to spouting phrases like “little convo” (conversation) and “vaca time” (vacation), tell Crick that he’s suffering from schizophrenia. Unwilling to accept that diagnosis, he turns to the next best thing, Professor Hilbert, who eventually agrees to help the man figure out whether his life is a tragedy or a comedy.

Midway through Stranger Than Fiction, Forster takes his movie straight down the rabbit hole: Crick meets his maker, to so speak, Kay Eiffel (Thompson), a harried, eccentric bestselling author whose novels always end with the death of the main character. The same fate apparently awaits the protagonist of her latest book, “Death and Taxes.”

So Crick’s adventures in Meta-Land have led to this dilemma: Is he willing to lose his life for great literature? A death contrary to the one Eiffel has planned for Crick “won’t be nearly as meaningful or as poetic as what she’s written,” Hilbert says. “You have to die. It’s her masterpiece.”

Crick’s friendship with Hilbert is funny, and his encounters with his spiritual “mother,” Eiffel, are fascinating, thanks to the sharp dialogue. Less engaging is Crick’s relationship with a love interest, a sexy anarchist baker (“The Anarchist Cookbook,” anyone?) and Harvard Law School drop-out played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. So the recipe for Helm’s first screenplay isn’t perfect – stranger things have happened in Hollywood.

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