Thursday, January 04, 2007

Stranger Than Fiction

In an earlier review of another Will Ferrell movie - Talladega Nights - I portentously predicted that 'Stranger Than Fiction' would be the 'Truman Show' moment of Ferrell's acting career. In other words, after capably demonstrating his ability to do comedy in all its mad-cap hilarity, Ferrell was about to dip his toe into more serious waters, much like Jim Carrey did to critical acclaim in 'Man on the Moon' and to more widespread audience approval in 'The Truman Show'. Now both those movies had an effect on Jim Carrey's longevity, but the effect of audience reaction to The Truman Show on his career cannot be understated. It's impossible to know if Carrey would even have been considered for 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' had he not played Truman Burbank so, well, straight. In Eternal Sunshine, there are very few moments where Carrey plays for laughs. In fact, much of his character's screen-time is spent in earnest, haunted pursuit of Clementine, the girlfriend who has tried to erase her memories of his very existence. This is a long way from prat-falls and rubber-faced gurning, and is by a very long way Jim Carrey's best movie.

There's definitely something about a comic actor turning in a respectable dramatic performance that really appeals to audiences. Even Adam Sandler has done it, in his career-best movie 'Punch-Drunk Love', a bittersweet, off-beat comedy that deserved a lot more love than it got. Sandler played a soft-spoken lonely guy, browbeaten by his family. He has a real desire to better himself, although he perhaps lacks the capability or the social skills to achieve this goal. His story in Punch-Drunk Love is enthralling and beautifully filmed, but his performance is surprisingly subtle and eminently watchable, a galaxy far far away from 'The Waterboy'.

Will Ferrell can do comedy, of that there's no question. 'Anchorman' is anarchic, sexist, irreverent and Ferrell is at his manic best. In 'Talladega Nights' however, he showed his ability to really carry a movie, and gave a glimpse of something more under the surface of the lunacy.

While I might have predicted that 'Stranger Than Fiction' was going to be the Truman Show moment of Will Ferrell's career, I'm going to modify that prediction. Stranger Than Fiction is a better movie than The Truman Show. I would more readily compare it to 'Eternal Sunshine'.

I don't say this lightly. 'Stranger Than Fiction' is a complex, nuanced story which swerves between comedy and tragedy in a manner as sure-footed as double o'seven doing parcours. The driver of the story is essentially Harold Crick's (Will Ferrell) realization that he has begun hearing a narrator in his mind. As he brushes his teeth, this narrator describes his thoughts, and as he crosses the street, the voice describes the squeaking of his shoes.. all very innocuous and amusing you may think, until the narrator mentions Harold's imminent death.

Harold's reaction to the news sends him on an enthralling and unpredictable path. His quest to find the author of the story he's appearing in sends him first to the Human Resources manager in his company for a chat, and then quickly to a psychiatrist. But Harold is a serious guy, and Ferrell does not play the character for laughs. He appears genuinely unsettled by this turn of events, and although the idea is fantastic, it is grounded well in reality by Ferrell's performance, as he never over-reacts, even when he tries in vain to make the voice speak..

Ferrell is ably supported in Stranger Than Fiction. Dustin Hoffman is excellent, and shares some of the funniest moments in the movie with Ferrell. Emma Thompson, too, is in excellent form, and this may be the best performance I've ever seen her turn in. (I don't really do Jane Austen though, so I might be wrong about that!).

Maggie Gyllenhall, too, is really lovely in this one. Having only seen her in the decidedly strange 'Secretary', I wasn't certain what to expect, but she appears to be the real deal, and delivers a balanced performance, despite her character perhaps not being the strongest in the movie.

Where Stranger Than Fiction really delivers though, is in the script. The plot appears at first to be a conventional comedy, but very early in the movie we move from 'Bruce Almighty' territory to more alien terrain: we suddenly become sympathetic to Ferrell, and concerned to see how his situation will pan out. His performance is pivotal in this regard, and I believe this is his biggest success in a role where, generally, he is playing it straight. From the moment where Ferrell's character takes a holiday from his job, the movie unravels enthrallingly, with equal moments of tension, emotion and humour. The narrative is evocative of something Charlie Kaufman might have produced, but on one of his better days. 'Being John Malkovich' was clever, and 'Adaptation' also played with narrative, but in my opinion, the devices employed in 'Stranger Than Fiction' are more successful than in either of the two Kaufman movies. The difference being that the narrative never becomes confused or fantastic. The plot is always immediate, linear and has a very definite beginning, middle and end. More like Spotless Mind in fact, but with a plot device that is more readily acceptable to a movie audience in that a voice-over is normally used in much more mundane ways to move a plot forward.

The fact that I'm comparing Stranger than Fiction to 'Eternal Sunshine' in favourable terms is an indication that I really liked this movie. I'm a big Charlie Kaufman fan, and this movie is definitely inspired by, or indebted to Kaufman's work, perhaps with a little of Wes Anderson thrown in. This is no bad mix though, as long as the execution is good. Well, happily, Zach Helm's script is well rendered by director Marc Forster, and the acting is excellent. This movie is intelligent, funny, and will leave you wanting more. Perhaps it's a little early to add it to the favourites list just yet, but 'Stranger Than Fiction' is definitely in the same ball-park as 'Eternal Sunshine' and 'Punch-Drunk Love'.

Even if you don't like Charlie Kaufman, and thought Eternal Sunshine was drivel, I would urge you to go see 'Stranger Than Fiction'. It will surprise you. If you are a Charlie Kaufman fan, and enjoyed 'Eternal Sunshine', I have no doubt you'll enjoy this movie too.

The Verdict: It's great. Go see it.
The Rating: 9/10

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