That I would end up loving a movie starring Will Ferrell rates pretty high on the scale of unlikely events. Yes, I knew that this was supposed to contain a Will Ferrell performance unlike any other, but I couldn’t help but remember how his “subdued” performance in Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda (2004) had marred that film. Then too, the trailer for Stranger Than Fiction managed to showcase the loudest and most obnoxious bits of Ferrelliana in its two-and-a-half minutes, which in this case, means the only such scenes in the entire film. (Though it starts out nicely, the trailer is pretty much a botch job all the way around, since it also gives the false impression that Dustin Hoffman is coasting on his I Heart Huckabees (2004) performance.)
The truth is that Marc Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction actually delivers a brand new Will Ferrell performance — a touchingly nuanced, yet almost deadpan one that contains not one jot of his “Look! I’m being funny now!” schtick. It’s also one of the best films of the year — and one in which Marc Forster has found a workable middle-ground between reality and the hallucinatory fireworks of his brilliant, but largely unappreciated and misunderstood, Stay (2005). It helps immensely that Forster has been handed one of the wittiest, cleverest and strangely warmest screenplays imaginable by hyped newcomer Zach Helm. (If Stranger is any barometer of Helm’s talent, his directorial debut — slated for a 2007 release — Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, is a film to be on the lookout for.)
The premise of Stranger is brilliant. Drudge IRS agent Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) suddenly finds that his life has a voice-over narration, which turns out to be coming from a reclusive writer, Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), who is suffering from writer’s block. At first, this is merely annoying — and certainly inconvenient — but it soon becomes something more when he realizes that he’s a character in her latest book and that her plan is to kill him off. Judged schizophrenic by a psychiatrist (Linda Hunt), he seeks counsel from literary expert Prof. Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) in the hopes of finding out who the writer in question is.
In the meantime, Harold’s life is changing thanks to his encounter with a self-proclaimed anarchist baker, Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), whose decision to only pay a percentage of her taxes (because she doesn’t agree with how some of the money is being spent) has earned her an audit. At first, their relationship is volatile to say the least (she can’t even understand why she’s being audited, because she sent a letter — with the salutation, “Dear Imperialist Swine” — explaining her decision). But things change, and as they do, so does Harold and his perception of the world and his place in it.
It would be a great disservice to this rich and captivating film to give away more of its plot, since that plot — and the surprises it contains — is one of the delights of the film. Quite a few critics have likened the film (not always favorably) to the work of Charlie Kaufman, citing similarities to his scripts for Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002)) and Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)). The link isn’t wrong, but it’s largely grounded in the fantasticated surface of the material.
At bottom, Stranger has more in common with Ferrell’s other foray into something more serious, Melinda and Melinda, and even more in common with an earlier Woody Allen film, Bullets Over Broadway (1994) — at least on a thematic level (stylistically, there’s no commonality). Melinda and Melinda examines the same story set up from two perspectives — as a comedy and a tragedy. Stranger crafts one story that spends its length debating whether its main character is in a comedy or a tragedy. Bullets is a flat-out comedy, but one that ultimately tussles with the same question that’s faced in Stranger — how high a price should an artist be willing to pay (or have someone else pay) in order to not compromise his or her work. Is that art worth a person’s life? In Stranger the question becomes deeper and more involved because the person in question knows what’s happening and has a voice in the matter. This being its central theme, the layers of this aspect of Stranger are amazing and include and involve each of the film’s main characters. Beautifully written (the passages from Eiffel’s book are stunningly good), acted and directed, there’s not a false note in Stranger Than Fiction. Rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, sexuality, brief language and nudity.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke