Saturday, November 11, 2006

Stranger than Fiction


Film critic Robert W. Butler, who I normally like quite a bit, did me a real disservice by comparing Stranger than Fiction to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and then making the rather audacious statement that the former is better than the latter.

First of all, though STF is a very charming film in its own right, it's certainly no Eternal Sunshine. And to its credit, despite some similarities in structure, I don't really think it was trying to be.

Instead of trying to be a full-blown mind-bender, it's really a study of structure in literature, and as such it succeeds in tearing through the cliches of the novel form even as it revels in them.

The story centers on Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), an IRS auditor who may or may not also be the subject of a novel by Kay Eiffel (a very welcome Emma Thompson). To tell anything more would be a crime I won't commit.

Along with the clever structure, what makes this all work so well are the performances, particularly from two men I don't always like to see on screen.

First, Will Ferrell. I had no idea that, if he simply toned it down a few notches, he could retain all his comic timing and carry a movie squarely on his shoulders. He's on screen at least 70 percent of the time, and for once I never got tired of seeing him. And second, Dustin Hoffman, who, like Al Pacino, has often been coasting through his latter career by doing an awful lot of shouting. Here he's pleasantly subdued and insightful as the literature professor who helps Harold through his predicament.

I expected the ladies to have a bigger part in this one, but among them Emma Thompson makes the most of her limited screen time as the author who may be Harold's narrator. She's a perfect portrait of obsessive-compulsiveness, and I enjoyed every minute she got on screen. As for Maggie Gyllenhaal, she really doesn't have much to do but look pretty (which she's awfully good at), but there's still something extremely pleasing in watching her talk about cookies.

And the ending of this one, which you won't hear about from me, fits perfectly within its literary framework. I have to admit that I don't read nearly as many books as I used to, and this very smart and funny flick has me thinking I should change that immediately.

Or, maybe tomorrow, because now I have to see if my mighty Maryland Terrapins can hold on for the second half and defeat Miami. Fear the turtle.

23 comments:

Linda said...

Excellent review! This was a smart film with such endearing qualities. I often talk about the power of a cookie, I was glad to see that acknowledged in this film. : )

Reel Fanatic said...

Thanks, Linda ... I had very high expectations for this one, and it met every one

Divinity said...

I just got back from this one and, as an avid reader (when I have the time), it gave me the same feeling as a well-written book - engaging, endearing, intelligent and yet human. A perfectly shaped 2 hours, as I told my friend, with nothing that does not contribute to the ultimate message. Loved it!
(I think this is the first time I've made it into your first five comments. Woo-hoo!)

Reel Fanatic said...

I couldn't agree more, Divinity ... I had fears that my high expectations would make this one a dud, but it was even better than, and much smarter than I expected

Anonymous said...

Well said! I, too, was surprised that some critics I trust didn't see this one the way I did, but your take on it was just right. I loved the light touch of the meta-issues about story structure. You can see what I had to say about it here:
http://movies.yahoo.com/shop?d=hv&cf=parentsguide&id=1808723400

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen Stranger Than Fiction yet, but I have to admit that after seeing the trailer it became the first Will Ferrell movie I've really wanted to see (well, I also wanted to see Bewitched, but then I read the reviews....).

Toby said...

While looking up something else on IMDb.com, I came across mention of a Jim Carrey movie for next year called "Number 23". It sounds like it has a similar plot, and that's going to suffer with comparisons to STF.

Neverending cycle, I guess....

Reel Fanatic said...

I saw the trailer for 23 the other day, Toby, and I'm still not sure what it's gonna be about ... I feel about Jim Carrey much like I do about Will Ferrell ... Though he can be very funny, I just want him to settle down a little, which it looks like he will here

Espen Nersveen said...

Doesn´t have anything to do with this post but I just want to support you with the fact that Spinal Tap is a fantastic movie.

Nice to "meet" another filmgeek.

Cheers

Reel Fanatic said...

It is indeed Espen ... I'm so glad Christopher Guest makes at least as many movies as Rob Reiner!

Anonymous said...

i'm looking forward to seeing this.

thanks for stopping by my blog... yours is excellent!!

Anonymous said...

saw both babel and stranger than fiction this weekend and it was very nice to see both farrell and pitt stretching their acting abilities.....

Reel Fanatic said...

I just got home from Babel, Julio, and I'm gonna try and write something about it right now ... It was simply an astounding film that hit me very hard, so I hope what I write can convey that

Divinity said...

A question just occurred to me,"What did Harold Crick do on the weekends?" Before that first Wednesday, of course. Hmmm....

Reel Fanatic said...

It does make you wonder, Divinity, but this one just seemed to have a perfect structure to me, so I didn't mind a few unanswered questions

litelysalted said...

Looks like we were somewhat on the same page, here! Yours was more eloquently put, however.

Comparing this movie to Eternal Sunshine is exactly the sort of lazy criticism that compared the clever, albeit short-lived Sons and Daughters to Arrested Development.

Reel Fanatic said...

I have to confess I never caught Sons and Daughters, litelysalted ... I miss AD so much, but my all-time favorite short-lived series would still have to be the sublime Freaks and Geeks

litelysalted said...

Freaks and Geeks! Easily one of the most beautifully orchestrated series of all time. War and obesity be damned, Freaks and Geeks and Arrested are two of the main reasons why I have no hope for America.

At any rate, I only caught about half of Sons and Daughters during it's short-run, but from what I saw I thoroughly enjoyed it. Also, series creator Fred Goss is a genuinely good guy and the kind of person I would have liked to see succeed in the industry. Sigh. Catch the DVDs when they come out... (supposedly, they are coming out) You won't be disappointed.

Reel Fanatic said...

I definitely will check them out ... Failure on TV is unfortunately too often a sure a sign of quality nowadays

vasilisa said...

Great review! This was an absolutely delightful movie, much better then I expected. And though many reviewers compared it to Adaptation, I found it to be much more thoughtful and meaningful.

And the questions of art and responsibility to it where very intriguing...

Reel Fanatic said...

I've gotten a lot of flack for saying it, Vasilisa, but I thought Adaptation was just highly overrated and just way too much in love with itself to be entertaining

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