Monday, November 13, 2006

Stranger than Fiction

If you've seen the trailers, you know that in Stranger than Fiction, Harold Crick suddenly hears a narrative voice describing the occasional scenes he is living. While one might naturally expect Harold to be troubled by this, the urgency to understand the curious phenomenon increases when the narrator drops the off-handed line that Harold's death is imminent. A shallow and boring IRS auditor, he seeks help first from a psychiatrist, and then a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman). Listening to the omniscient commentary in his head, he allows himself to fall in love with an auditee (Maggie Gyllenhaal). He eventually faces his own fate when he confronts the author who is trying desperately to overcome writer's block and finish his story (Emma Thompson).

Maybe they should have called it Eternal Despair in an Author's Mind. Yes, this seemed a lot like the Charlie Kaufman movie that is one of my all-time favorites. And there are too many similarities to be accidental. Fiction is a surreal dramedy about a socially maladroit guy in his 30's (played by a wildly succesful comedic actor trying to make a transition)who has an unlikely romance with a wild and beautiful yet sensitive young woman. And both have a surprise ending.

Stranger than Fiction has a better supporting cast, including Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman and Queen Latifah, which adds some heft, but still doesn't make it as good as Eternal Sunshine because, frankly, it isn't written nearly as well. Fiction is also a funnier movie (particularly Hoffman), although most of the audience at my showing didn't recognize the humor. But in the end, Stranger than Fiction is a cool idea searching for a William Goldman to come in and make it a great movie.

Even more disappointing, Will Ferrell is miscast and turns in a woeful performance, either that or he's been watching too many Wes Anderson movies. And both Emma Thompson and Queen Latifah are workmanlike at best. But Maggie Gyllenhaal once again proves her mettle, and Dustin Hoffman (the greatest actor of his generation) further demonstrates his comedic range and extraordinary ability to make every role his own, unique creation. Without him, the movie would be tiresome, although even Hoffman can't overcome the uneven script.

This could have been a great movie. Instead, it is a singularly interesting idea of the interwoven realities of art and life that manages to mildly entertain as it meanders its way to the final chapter.