Stranger Than Fiction review by Mike Long

There's an old Queensryche song which contains the line, "Strange how laughter looks like crying with no sound" -- thus we have the fine line between comedy and drama, happiness and sorrow. Many actors like to move between these two worlds and the skilled ones make it look easy. When Jim Carrey made the leap from comic buffoon to tragic hero in The Truman Show, it was mesmerizing, showing us a side of the actor which we hadn't seen. Now, Will Ferrell attempts to make a similar leap in a similar film, Stranger Than Fiction, but can a comedian become too serious?

Ferrell stars in Stranger Than Fiction as Harold Crick, a mild-mannered IRS employee. Harold lives alone and leads a very solitary life. He does the same routine everyday, and he thrives on numbers, as he counts the strokes when he brushes his teeth, counts the number of steps to the bus stop, and can quickly do math in his head. One day, Harold's life takes a very bizarre turn when he begins to hear a voice narrating his life. The female voice doesn't tell Harold what to do, but rather she simply describes what Harold is doing. At first, Harold doesn't know what to make of this, but as the voice continues, Harold begins to unravel.

At the same time, we meet author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson). Kay is a neurotic, standoffish writer who is attempting to complete a novel about a man named Harold Crick. Her publisher sends Penny Escher (Queen Latifah) to ensure that Kay completes her novel on time, much to Kay's chagrin.

As Harold realizes that the voice is a narrator, he seeks the help of literature professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), who attempts to assist Harold in deciding what kind of story he is in. Meanwhile, Harold has been assigned to audit a bakery owner named Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Ana is a modern-day revolutionary who purposely neglected to pay all of her taxes and she immediately resents Harold. Yet, Harold finds himself drawn to this fiery woman. As if all of this craziness isn't enough for Harold, he hears Kay's voice say that he is going to die.

You can no doubt tell that Stranger Than Fiction has a lot of story going on and the story it presents is quite interesting. Screenwriter Zach Helm is clearly mining Charlie Kaufman territory, but that's OK, as the film certainly has the Kaufman quality, but it never feels like a rip-off. (While the overall script has a Charlie Kaufman feel, the idea that a watch accelerates the story reminded me of Douglas Adams.) Had this been a short film, then the story would have most likely played like an episode of The Twilight Zone, where the uptight and anal Harold begins to hear a voice and his tidy life is changed. But, as a feature length film, Helm has been able to add many more dimensions and characters to Harold's tale, as we watch the man search the meaning of the voice and also watch as he find love. At the same time, we get the story of Kay Eiffel, a successful writer who appears to be quite mad. I enjoyed the juxtaposition here as Kay, the respected artist, clearly has issues, while Harold, the plain tax agent, is perceived as being crazy because he hears a voice.

Director Mark Forster has done a fine job of taking Helm's script and translating it to the screen. He takes all of the characters and information and presents it in a way which is never overwhelming. Forster also allows the tone of the story to dictate the look and feel of the film and this is where Stranger Than Fiction runs into trouble. At the beginning, we are introduced to two rather dour characters -- Harold is a fastidious and lonely man and Kay is a bizarre and cranky woman. Thus, the film has a cold and sterile look and feel which reflects these characters. Forster fills the film with sharp angles and cool colors which mirror the lives of the characters. I don't think I'm giving anything away here when I say that as Harold's old life comes apart, he begins to loosen up somewhat -- even when things look grave. Yet, the overall tone of the movie never changes. Forster continues to allow the film to be emotionally closed off and this is disconcerting to the viewer. The visuals don't match the characters behavior and the difference create distance from the film. (At one point during the movie David Cronenberg called me and said, "Can you believe how sterile this movie feels?")

The same can be said of Will Ferrell's performance. This man, known for his non-sensical ranting in film likes Anchorman and Talladega Nights, really reels it in here, and he plays Harold as he is written, as a sad and lonely man. (Compare this to Jim Carrey in The Truman Show where Carrey got a little nutty at times.) Yet, even when Harold become happy or upset, I still felt that Ferrell was holding back too much. Thus, Harold remains unapproachable throughout the film. Ferrell's performance isn't bad, it just doesn't serve the film from beginning to end. The other actors in the movie are stupendous. I've found Maggie Gyllenahall to be a bit of a downer in other films, but she really lights up the screen here, despite that nasty tattoo. The controlled insanity displayed by Dustin Hoffman nods to what Ferrell's performance should have been like. And Emma Thompson, who looks as if she just woke up, is scarily good as the unstable Kay.

Based on the trailer for Stranger Than Fiction, I had high hopes for the film. And also based on the trailer, I was expecting the film to be more of a surrealist fantasy/comedy. Instead, the movie is a more serious look at how people can be alive and yet, not living. The movie has some funny moments and some potentially touching ones, but the overall sterile and cold tone of the film dilutes many of these emotions. Stranger Than Fiction is certainly unique and interesting, but the lack of charm hurts the film.

Stranger Than Fiction has auditory hallucinations on DVD courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The transfer looks very good, as the image is sharp and clear. The picture shows no overt grain and there are no defects from the source material. Video noise does pop up at times, most notably in the stripes of Dustin Hoffman's sweaters. The colors look good and the use of rich colors really stand out against the grey and white backgrounds. The DVD offers a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The surround sound effects are very good, most notably the use of crowd scenes or Kay's voice in the rear channels. The subwoofer doesn't come into play very often, but during the demolition scene, it really adds to the film.

The DVD features a number of extras, most of which are featurettes. "Actors in Search of a Story" (19 minutes) focuses on each of the main actors and their characters. We get an overview of director Marc Forster and the crew he uses on his films in "Building the Team" (8 minutes). "On Location in Chicago" (10 minutes) explores why Chicago was chosen and where certain things were shot. Writer Zach Helm talks about the script and the tone of the film is discussed in "Words on a Page" (9 minutes). The 17-minute "Picture a Number: The Evolution of a G.U.I." examines the graphics and on-screen numbers which are used throughout the film. (For the ignorant like me, G.U.I. = Graphic User Interface.) "On the Set" (3 minutes) is a montage of on-location footage. The extras are rounded out by two DELETED AND EXTENDED SCENES, both of which are simply full-length versions of TV interviews which are glimpsed in the film. These extras are serviceable, but I wanted to know more about the script.

6 out of 10 Jackasses

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