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June 06, 2008

DVD Journal: "Stranger Than Fiction"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --


Pretentious drivel: A whimsical metaphysical comedy that's both a Michel Gondry-comedy wannabe and an attempt at a metaphorical statement film like "The Truman Show."

The idea is that an IRS agent / bachelor / lonely-guy (Will Ferrell) starts hearing a voice in his head, narrating his life, and even hinting that his death is soon to come. It's the voice of a famous, blocked, long unheard-from author (Emma Thompson). (Incidentally, all this info is given away very early in the movie, so I'm not spoiling much.) Confronted with the fact that his life isn't under his own control, the IRS drone starts to live, live: takes up guitar; stumbles into affair with hippie baker Maggie Gyllenhaal. Confronted with the fact that a character she's been marionetting has a real existence, will the author start re-think her fanaticism about fiction? Dustin Hoffman plays a literature prof who tries to help Ferrell puzzle out what's happening to him.

The main difference between "Stranger Than Fiction" and a tearfully life-affirming Meg Ryan weeper is that this movie has had a tricky "conceptual" frame placed around it. But all the folding-back-on-itself script stuff -- and all the arty-deadpan directorial trickery (which comes right out of blissed-out, New Agey, high-end TV ads) -- can't conceal the hackneyed thinness of the characters and the rote schlockiness of the central story.

A sign of how lame the movie is is the way the major question about the central conceit is completely dodged: Why has this connection between writer and real person / character occurred? The film is beautifully-done in some out-of-time, out-of-place, fairy-tale ways. But emotionally and imaginatively it feels beyond arbitrary.

Fast-Forwarding Score: Nothing -- I watched the movie with a bunch of other people. Had it been up to me I'd have shut the disc off after half an hour.

Semi-related: I enjoyed disliking "Monster's Ball," another film directed by "Stranger Than Fiction"'s Marc Forster; I just plain enjoyed the rowdy Will Ferrell NASCAR comedy "Talladega Nights."



posted by Michael at June 6, 2008


I love "enjoyed disliking" for a certain category of movie. I recently enjoyed disliking two films about brothers-who-need-to-kill-someone. I think it's a new genre. "Cassandra" by Woody Allen, and "Before the Devil Knows Your Dead." Both were clunky and predictable, with wooden acting by everyone concerned (except for Marisa Tomei, a saving grace.)

"Stanger Than Fiction" was unwatchable, for me. The idea of Emma Thompson in your head is pretty dreadful. I couldn't even enjoy disliking it!

Posted by: Sister Wolf on June 6, 2008 8:08 PM

It might have been okay if it came out before "Adaptation," but afterwards ...

Posted by: Steve Sailer on June 6, 2008 9:49 PM

Just saw Forster's "The Kite Runner." It was a humanist melodrama but, I admit, I found it very moving. Quite a few critics despised it.

Posted by: Bryan on June 7, 2008 11:51 AM

Oh, I so disagree with you about Stranger than Fiction. And I tend to dislike Emma Thompson. I really do have an irrational dislike of her as an actress. I do admit, however, that Queen Latifah seemed a bit lost in that part.

If they had been explicit about the reason for the connection between author and subject it would have been worse because the likely explanation would be of the Hollywood-writer-metaphysical variety and I would have had to mock it.

I am totally into the backgrounds used in movies, these days, and I liked the way the movie showcased all those sterile 1960s-1970s Chicago buildings (?architect) - the ones you see on the UIC campus, which are technically hideous, but which I sort of like because of the way you feel when you are on the campus. Both homey and alien at the same time.

I loved the ending despite the cries of 'oh, it's too cutesy.' I think it's the profession. I have to go with life every single time. I loved the humanity of the ending. As if a piece of art = a single human life. Who are the dreary film student types who wanted it to go the other way to be more 'edgy'? :) (My impression from Amazon reviews)

Oddly enough, Steve Sailer, I did not care for Adaptation although I see your point!

Maggie Gyllenhall is a freak but it worked this time (Did you know I almost lived in that freaky riverfront building the main character moved into? The one with the sort of 'pod' like apartments? What's it called again......)

Posted by: onparkstreet on June 7, 2008 5:19 PM

Sister W. -- That is a good category, come to think of it. Time to assemble a top-10 list of "films I enjoyed disliking." Ok, so it's kind of a special category, but at least it's a fresh one.

Steve-- That's an excellent point. How many times can these fancy conceptual games be played? Hey, maybe if they're played dozens of times they become their own special genre. But until then ...

Bryan -- I'd been wondering about "Kite Runner" -- thanks for the report.

MD -- I'd think that the film's wonderstruck tone would suit you pretty well. Were those sterile rows of buildings from UIC? That was real city of the future circa 1955 stuff, wasn't it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 7, 2008 8:50 PM

I thought it sucked, too.

Posted by: yahmdallah on June 7, 2008 10:15 PM

yeah, stranger then fiction sucked. as much as i find gyllenhaal attractive i found her character annoying i hated that she was considered the wise anchor in the film for the ferrell character. i found "anchorman" man amusing as far as the "pure" ferrell films go.

Posted by: t. j. on June 8, 2008 8:48 AM

Yahmdallan -- Smart and funny review.

T.J. -- Gyllenhall's a funny kind of hot actress, isn't she? She's cute enough, but what makes her really hot (it seems to me) is 1) talent, and 2) her conviction that she's hot. Also that very spoiled and entitled quality she has is pretty hot. Agree with you about her character -- she's a hippie baker, and that's it. Nothing surprising about her. Nothing weird, neurotic, inspired. Just a hippie baker. Snore. I suppose you could argue that this makes her an archetypal fairy tale character, but even so it's a boring one, no? Anyway, I'm eager to catch up with "Anchorman."

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 8, 2008 11:27 AM

This flick is Charlie Kaufman-lite. My 15-year old son really enjoyed it, though, and he didn't like Kaufman's movies that much. I think "Stranger Than Fiction" presents some of Kaufman's ideas in a more accessible manner, perhaps. For the record, I love Emma Thompson, although she was highly annoying in this flick.

Michael, "Anchorman" is hilarious. Big, dumb and hilarious. Paul Rudd is a national treasure.

Posted by: JV on June 8, 2008 4:21 PM

I'm with Yamdallah. Well, not really. Whose opinion I'm with is Whisky Prajer's comment on Yamdallah's review. I thought Ferrell was surprisingly effective in his semi-serious role, Gyllenhall was surprising in her "considerate female" role, Hoffman was his usual scene-stealing self, and Emma Thompson? Well, between her and Streep, 30-40 years from now, she'll be known as the actress of the '90's (yes, I do realize that Stranger than Fiction was done in 2006).
Come on.
Howard/s End.
Nancy McPhee.
And my favorite of her films, The Winter Guest (with her mum, Phylidda Law).

Give Ms. Thompson some props for some excellent work in a wide array of film style.

Posted by: DarkoV on June 9, 2008 8:40 AM

You are too tough, Michael. Yes, it was a rather small story, in the wrapper of an also smallish "concept". Story and wrapper together made a one-episode pretty story. The pretty package was enjoyable as itself, and like one good episode of a TV series, I found it enjoyable. Story alone or concept alone wouldn't have supported an epic movie, but carved up and twined together as it was, it worked. In a smallish way, of course.

Don't care much for Emma Thompson in this role, but she's really good.

Posted by: Sam_S on June 10, 2008 3:01 AM

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