This amusing effort is one of the best films of 2006, a surreal comedy about the intersection between art and reality, fact and fiction. It takes on a rather thoughtful theme without drowning in the potential pretentiousness of its almost too precious premise. Instead, STRANGER THAN FICTION delivers as a wonderfully romantic comedy that manages to eat its cake and have it too: while addressing the topic of whether tragedy is more profound than comedy, the film argues that the artistic compromise inherent in popular art may in fact be preferable to the purism that demands downbeat dénouements instead of upbeat happy endings.
Will Farrell, abandoning the broad, crude comedy that has made him a star, plays Harold Crick, a man who begins to notice a strange voice in his head: a female narrator who describes and analyzes his every action. While he goes about the boring, unbroken routine of his life, which includes running an IRS audit on bakery owner Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), he comes to believe that he is a character in a novel being written by the unseen female voice, and he seeks help from literary professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman). Eventually, Crick meets the author, Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), who has a reputation for always killing off her protagonists. In fact, Kay is working on just this problem, trying to come up with a dramatic means of dispatching Crick. When she finishes her long-delayed manuscript, Crick turns it over to Hilbert, in the hope that he can come up with a solution that will spare his life, but the professor declares that the unpublished novel is Eiffel’s masterpiece and that its brilliance depends on Crick’s death. Will Crick meet the fate Eiffel has intended for him, or will she have a change of heart and compromise her work in favor of keeping him alive?
As in the writing of Borges, we see the interplay between fiction and reality; as in the fiction of John Barth, we see the dramatic device of the story in progress being explicitly analyzed. This may sound like a stuffy lecture, but the movie is actually hysterically funny as it plays out its highbrow ideas in amusing cinematic terms. At one point, Professor Hilbert advises Crick that some stories are driven by the action of the protagonist; therefore, Crick may be able to avoid his fate if he ceases to take action – that is, does nothing. This leads to a droll sequence of Crick cringing alone in his apartment, too timid to open his mail, answer the phone, or even change the television channel displaying gruesome documentary footage of wildlife carnage.
Unfortunately, it is all for naught, as it turns out that Crick is in the other kind of story, one driven not by the protagonist but by outside events – which in this case take the form of a giant wrecking ball knocking out a wall of his apartment.
The sophisticated screenplay by Zach Helm is matched by the careful direction of Marc Forster, who ably captures a world where creator and created can co-exist, without ever succumbing to mere whimsy that would render the story a simple spoof rather than a heartfelt drama. Forster also knows how to use the visual elements to underline the emotional points in Helm’s script, a capacity most evident in the wonderful bus scene between Crick and Ana. As Crick tries to make a personal connection with the attractive woman (one she resists because of the antagonism of their professional relationship), the double-length bus twists and turns, the two sections shifting angles around the pivot in the center. The back and forth motion underlines the tentative nature of the nascent relationship: sometimes Ana and Crick line up eye to eye, but only for a second; then they drift apart again, the momentary connection broken.
For whatever reason, STRANGER THAN FICTION failed to find the audience it deserved in theatres. Perhaps Farrell fans did not want to see him in something relatively serious (that is, lacking pratfalls). Perhaps sophisticated viewers were scared off, thinking the movie would be another RON BURGANDY clone. It’s too bad, because both audiences would probably have found something worthwhile in the film. With any luck, this will be a movie that enjoys a belated discovery, growing to become regarded as a classic even if it was never a big success.
STRANGE THAN FICTION was released in February 2007 on disc in two formats: Blu-Ray Disc (ASIN: B000M4RGA6) and a Standard DVD (ASIN: B000LXHOAE).
The Standard DVD presents the film with English (Dolby Digital 5.1) and French (Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround) audio tracks, plus optional English and French subtitles. The 113-minute running time is divided into 28 chapter stops. Unfortunately, the menu allows you only to scroll through the chapters four at a time; there is no option to jump ahead to chapters 9-through-12, for example.
The disc automatically launches with a series of trailers (including PREMONITION, starring Sandra Bullock) before segueing into the STRANGER THAN FICTION material; fortunately, you can skip the coming attractions by using the Menu button.
There is no audio commentary, so the bonus features take the form of seven featurettes and two extended/deleted scenes.
THE FEATURETTES, which all bear a 2006 copyright date, seem to have been produced to promote the film’s theatrical release. Some of them are informative, but they do not have the perspective that comes after a film has been reviewed and taken its chance in the market place.
- “Actors in Search of a Story” profiles the cast. The highlight is Dustin Hoffman’s jokey claim that his career resume qualified him to play the lead; all he needed was some modern makeup to remove his wrinkles to make him look Will Ferrell’s age.
- “Building the Team” is less interesting, being a run-down of the crew, many of whom worked on director Mark Forster’s previous film, FINDING NEVERLAND.
- “On Location in Chicago” takes a look at the film’s locations. Sets were only built when absolutely necessary (for example, the apartment that is destroyed by a wrecking crew); instead, actually locations in Chicago were used to lend a more realistic ambience (although the film itself never identifies the city in which it is set).
- “Words on a Page” has producer Lindsay Doran and writer Zach Helm discussing the development of the screenplay. Ideally, this featurette should have been placed first, as it deals with the project’s genesis.
- “Picture a Number: The Evolution of a G.U.I” is the most interesting featurette, providing a look at the special effects used to create the numerous charts, diagrams, and computations that show us what is going on inside Harold Crick’s head.
- “G.U.I” (pronounced “gooey”) stands for “Graphic User Interface,” which refers to any graphic display that allows a user to access and control a piece of computer software; in a sense, the special effects illustrate the G.U.I. that Crick uses to access the world around him.
- “On the Set” is a wordless montage, set to a rhythmic drumbeat, of behind-the-scenes footage.
THE DELETED/EXTENDED SCENES consist of two videotaped segments culled from bogus “interviews” that are seen in on the television set in the office of Dustin Hoffman’s literature professor.
- “Book Channel Interview with Karen Eiffel” presents the entirety of the interview between author Eiffel (Emma Thomson) and the Book Channel Host (Kristin Chenoweth), which is seen only in fragments in the finished film. Clearly intended as a spoof of talk shows with vapid hosts, the complete segment is too close an imitation of its target – more awkward and embarrassing than funny.
- “Book Channel Interview with Peter Allen Prother” was entirely deleted from STRANGER THAN FICTION. In it, Visual FX Designer Kevin Tod Haug appears as the author of a book titled “The South Will Fall Again.” Though worth a chuckle or two, the episode suffers from the same problem as the Eiffel interview: it is less a parody of a bad interview than an example of a bad interview.
Though lacking an audio commentary, the DVD’s featurettes decently encapsulate what went into making the film. The only thing really missing is a more in-depth look at the finished film itself, preferably with some kind of analysis of the sophisticated themes involved. However, this is the sort of thing that requires the perspective that comes with the passage of time; perhaps a 10th anniversary disc will address the issue…
STRANGER THAN FICTION (2006). Directed by Marc Forster. Written by Zach Helm. Cast: Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, William Dick, Guy Massey.
Copyright 2007 Steve Biodrowski