A film review by Craig J. Koban

STRANGER THAN FICTION jjj
½ 

2006, PG-13, 113 mins.

Harold Crick: Will Ferrell / Kay Eiffel: Emma Thompson / Ana Pascal: Maggie Gyllenhaal / Prof. Hilbert: Dustin Hoffman / Penny Escher: Queen Latifah / Dr. Mittag-Leffler: Linda Hunt

Directed by Marc Forster /  Written by Zach Helm

I like Will Ferrell.  A lot.  He is incredibly funny.  He's made – in my mind – two of the goofiest films of the last few years in ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY and TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY.  He's a remarkably broad physical comedian.  When I say “broad” I essentially mean that he seems willing to go out of his way to dumb himself down to any low level for a laugh.  For that, he is a hilarious man. 

I have laughed at some horrendously inane things that have come out of his mouth in his films.  I roared when his Ron Burgundy tried to tell a female reporter than women have pea sized brains and are “dirty pirate hookers” from “Whore Island” based on scientific facts.  I also lost it just as much when his Ricky Bobby plunged a knife in his non-paralyzed leg to convince his friends - and himself - that he was paralyzed.  Like I said…he's broad…but unmistakably droll.

Yet, beyond Ferrell’s otherwise capricious and daffy comic energy lies kind of a tender soul.  Even the chronic troglodyte and narcissistic apes that were Burgundy and Bobby had hearts underneath their ignorant facades.  It is this tenderness that really comes out in the forefront in Ferrell’s newest dramady, STRANGER THAN FICTION.  The one real delight in the film is in what a marked and noticeable change of pace it is for this master funny man. 

His character, Harold Crick, is a nice, calm, soft-spoken, apathetic, and wholesome person.  He is not a larger-than-life cartoonish buffoon.  He is a real person with hopes, aspirations, and feelings.  Surprisingly, in Ferrell’s hands one would expect this character to be as over-played as possible for all of the Ferrell-purists out there.  The most edifying aspect of STRANGER THAN FICTION is the poise, grace, and understated way that he creates a unique and interesting persona.  I never thought that I would say this in a review, but Will Ferrell gives one of the best performances of the year in the film.

This is not Ferrell’s first foray into playing roles straight and semi-serious.  He was very decent in Woody Allen’s terrific 2005 film MELINDA AND MELINDA, which chronicled the same story told from two different perspectives - comic and tragic – and then tried to decipher for itself what life tended to lean towards.  STRANGER THAN FICTION works a lot like that.  Is life a series of bad, tragic setbacks or is it one ripe with spirited and comical overtones?  That is the existentialist dilemma that Harold Crick goes through, and Ferrell gives such a textured and subtly nuanced portrait. 

He’s a lot less Jerry Lewis-esque here.  His work in FICTION owes more to carefully understated – yet funny – performances by actors like…say… Jack Lemmon and Steve Martin.   Outwardly he’s funny, but inside there is a poignant heart.  To see Ferrell so well reigned in for the proper comical and dramatic effect here is a revelation.  This could be the start of a decent dramatic career for the actor on the level of Robin Williams, who became much more effective and – ironically – funny when he played against type.

Beyond the character of Crick – who is wholeheartedly original – the other great element to FICTION is in its premise.  To call it surreal or absurdist is an understatement.  It’s also inventive and unique; kind of ADAPTATION-lite.  The premise is deceptively simple: A man lives his life from one painfully routine day after another when he starts to hear a voice in his head.  The voice is not his conscious, another personality, or a higher power.  It’s a struggling author.  She – at the same time of Crick’s actual existence  – is writing what she thinks is a fictional book about a man named Harold Crick.  She is Crick’s narrator.  When he brushes his teeth in the morning with 22 strokes, she is in an office typing that description.  He essentially hears her narration like a running DVD commentary on what he is doing or thinking at any given moment. 

Why is he hearing this writer’s voice and – more specifically – how is he hearing the voice?  The great thing about STRANGER THAN FICTION is that it never once goes out of its way to engage in a lot of useless exposition.  The film – very wisely – establishes it’s strange and mystical premise and never looks back afterwards.  Attempts at explaining Crick’s amazing experience with the author’s narration is left on the sideline, and properly so.  This is a film that does not need realistic explanations.  It’s about escapism and indulging in a creative premise in the presence of interesting and likeable characters.  The film does not care about how he is hearing the voice.  All it cares about is that he is hearing a voice.  Once you accept the otherworldly premise, the rest of the film sublimely proceeds forward.

Harold Crick responds to his voice like anyone would.  Normally.  First, it's with initial shock and befuddlement followed by doubt and suspicion.  He’s a normal guy.  He works in one of those sanitary and colorless office cubicals as a member of the IRS (“I work for the government,” he says at one point, “no one likes or respects me”).  His world is one of strident routine and mathematical scrutiny.  The director – Marc Forster – has a highly inventive visual approach to amplifying the character’s predilection to logic, measurement, and statistics.  When he his walking to the bus, for instance, counting his steps, small little graphics comes up on screen – like CNN tickers – displaying his counts in his head.  These visual touches reinforce Crick’s Vulcan-like personality.  In a world dominated by figures, he lacks human interaction.  All he has are his obsessive-compulsive impulses with data.

Crick is a sad figure, as a result.  He lives alone, goes to work alone, eats lunch alone, and goes home from work alone.  He has lived this type of static, lonely life for over ten years.  Then something very, very odd happens without warning or explanation – he starts to hear a voice.  At first, he thinks he’s hearing things.  Then, when the voice kicks in even more, he begins to look at his toothbrush with suspicion.  Despite the fact that he has no idea of the identity of the voice, it is revealed to be that of writer Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) who is magically narrating Crick’s life in his head as he lives it.  Pretty soon he begins to realize that he is the main character in someone’s book.  A dozen Dr. Phil’s could not help this poor sap.

He does what every man that is having an author narrate his life in his head would do – he sees a shrink.  She tells him – matter-of factly – that he’s schizophrenic.  He does not think so.  “I have a voice in my head that’s narrating my life, but with a better vocabulary,” he tells the psychiatrist.  She disagrees, of course, and wisely advise drugs (can ya blame her?).  He thinks he should see someone else more knowledgeable about his predicament.  He soon visits an English professor that specializes in narrative and literature.

As the voice continues to occupy his mind at every turn, Harold has a dark secret revealed to him.  At one point the voice says. “Little did he know, death was around the corner.”  What?!  How could this be?  Could Crick literally be killed as he will possibly be in Kay’s book?  Perhaps, especially considering the fact that the same author is speaking to him in his head!  Faced with the damaging realization that the author wants to kill him in the book (but does not know precisely how yet) Crick goes to see the Professor (Dustin Hoffman) for advice as to how to deal with the voice and with his impending doom.  Obviously, the prof thinks Crick is a loon, but gives him some pointers, the most tangible being to look at his daily life and mark off elements that owe more to tragedy and what falls more into the comic arena.  Early on, at least, Crick’s life appears hopelessly and unavoidably tragic. 

To make matters even more complicated, Harold becomes involved with a local baker named Ana, played in yet another effortless and plucky performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal.  She hates any type of government stooge.  She really hates taxmen.  She has not paid her taxes because of how the government spends her tax money.  Yet, Crick tells her that she has no choice – she has to pay or else.  She, in retaliation, does everything possible to make Crick’s job a living hell.  Then something strange happens – Harold starts to fall for this icy and distant lady.  More amazingly, she begins to show some modest sympathy for the lug.  A relationship begins between the two and Crick starts to see something to really live for.  However, with his death looming around the corner and with the realization of his voice’s actual identity, he goes on a quest to meet Eiffel to see if he can stop her from killing him.  Smart move.

Well…does Crick die in the literary and literal sense?  I will not reveal that other than to say that my only real misgiving with the film is that its solution to Crick’s own internal crisis seems to betray what has occurred before.  The film showcases one possible ending which – despite being what most people don’t want to see – would be much more daring and bold, not to mention intrinsically fascinating.  Yet, the film decides to take a road most traveled approached and offers over a twist at the end that feels more like a cop out than it should have been.  I loved the build up to the ending.  I loathed the follow-through that kind of left me shaking my head.  Let’s just say the film could have achieved a level of touching and heart-rending gravitas if it went towards its initial offering of an ending.

Yet, despite its weakness in its conclusion, STRANGER THAN FICTION reveals itself to be a very pleasant diversion at the cineplexes.  The film is sweetly engaging, has solid direction by Marc Forster (a German director who made MONSTER’S BALL and FINDING NEVERLAND), a completely original and absorbing premise, and – most crucially – some very good performances that don’t ham it up too much despite the film’s ludicrous premise.  With a cast that includes such notables like Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, it's a real surprise indeed to see  Will Ferrell give the film's finest performance, especially when one considers that he normally plays idiotic and mentally bankrupted goofballs.  Along with the film’s pathos-filled and fantastical storyline, Ferrell gives such a controlled, reserved, and touching performance that reflects the film’s musings on life and happiness. 

Those expecting Ferrell to play an irreproachable doofus and slapstick-inspired fool in STRANGER THAN FICTION may be pleasantly surprised.  The genuine marvel of the film is how it takes his larger than life comic vitality and hones it into a tremendously focused and assured performance that plays brilliantly between both hearty laughs and sensitivity.  More than anything, Ferrell’s great performance in the film proves one long held belief of mine – less is always more.

 

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