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The International Writers Magazine

Stranger Than Fiction
Dir. Marc Foster
Starring: Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman and Queen Latifah.
Rosie Wheatcroft

Harold Crick is a man you can set your wristwatch by. Calculating footsteps or counting toothbrush-strokes, Crick is an IRS agent of unequivocal consistency. In Stranger Than Fiction, Will Ferrell gives us his version of the Everyday Man Lost In An Unrelenting Sea Of Banality a la Jim Carey in The Truman Show or even Kevin Spacey in American Beauty.

Through the sudden omniscient narration Crick hears in his head, director Marc Foster (Finding Neverland) and newcomer screenplay and scriptwriter Zach Helm, ask us to consider the significance of art and the degree of control we have in our own lives.

Crick finds his absorption in the meticulous shattered by this narration. Seeking help from busy bare-footed, coffee-guzzling, volunteer life-guarding Literary Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), Crick explains that the voice he is hearing ‘isn’t telling him to do anything. It’s telling me what I’ve already done: accurately, and with a better vocabulary.’ The two of them narrow the narration down to New York based writer Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson); notorious for killing off her heroes. They attempt to find her and subsequently prevent Crick’s imminent death.

Along the way, the tattooed tax-dodging baker of sweet goods, Ana Pascal, romances Crick. In a film confused in both its message and genre, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance is a shining beacon. An unexpectedly touching scene where Pascal bakes cookies for Crick is damaged by Helm’s insipid script, forcing the words ‘I wanted to save the world with cookies’ out of Gyllenhaal’s otherwise captivating mouth.

It is unfair to blame the ambiguous message of this film on the actors, as there were brilliant performances all round. Emma Thompson’s tortured author, in all her pale chain-smoking writers-block glory, was marvellously jittery and believable. And Ferrell’s Harold Crick was exactly the right degree of energetic, yet restrained.

I wanted so much to like this film. The existential anxiety, the weary writer, the relationship between fiction and reality, the flawed characters were all greatly appealing. However, Stranger Than Fiction’s downfall is in its clumsy portrayal of its main message. If Forster was attempting to show us the sanctity and importance of art within our everyday lives, then he missed the mark entirely with Eiffell’s droll narrative and tedious imagery. Her story about Crick is neither interesting nor eventful until he starts rebelling against her path for him, and would make an exceedingly dull read. If this was Forster’s attempt at encouraging people to take interest in the literature around them, shown also through Professor Hilbert’s extensive book collection, then surely he would have used this thrilling concept to more economy and made Eiffel construct an exciting and eventful path for Crick to follow. Forster’s reliance on the viewer to ‘trust him, this will get interesting’, wears thin very quickly, and the otherwise fascinating concept of this film is wasted.

Helm certainly has a grasp of the slow rhythms and details of everyday speech. However his over explanatory dialogue and the lines ‘‘I need help’. ‘You look tired, you need a rest’’ finally killed me off, let alone Harold Crick. At this point I neither cared nor wanted to care about how Crick was killed off, and punctuated my point to the audience by getting up and leaving the cinema.

This film is carried by its fine performances of irresistible characters, but leave your desire for a philosophical plot to make sense, behind. Marc Forster with his half-arsed attempt certainly did.

© Rosie Wheatcroft Jan 2007

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