Saturday, November 18, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction: The Authorial Voice Intrudes

What if, one day, you heard a narrator describing your every action, including the precise number of strokes, both up-and-down and across-and-back, with which you brush your teeth? And what if you were not a imaginative sort who'd like to play along--or who, like some of us occasionally, narrate our own lives and thus welcome the assistance--but were instead an auditor for the IRS?

That's the premise of Stranger Than Fiction, in which Harold Crick, played by Will Ferrell, discovers that, not only is his dull life a story, but also that he has a narrator, Kay Eiffel, played by Emma Thompson. His discovery of the narrator's voice drives Crick to react, possibly for the first time in his life, and ask for help, surely for the first time. He starts, involuntarily, with the office's Human Resource counselor, played by a determined-to-hug Tom Hulce with crunchy glee. Harold then is compelled to visit the wry Linda Hunt's therapist; when he insists that he's not a candidate for medication, she sends him to a literary scholar played by Dustin Hoffman because, after all, a narrator is a literary device.

Such is the loopy but perfectly reasonable logic followed by this piquant and imaginative film. Zach Helm's script is crisp and fresh; the direction, by Marc Monster's Ball Forster, follows. The film's big revelation is that Will Ferrell can do subtle comedy; he isn't limited to running amok in his tighty whities. In fact, he can ponder the meaning of life (even the Monty Python film) with pathos and NOT lose his sense of humor. Hearing him use the word "ogled" in a sentence, when speaking to the object of his crush Maggie Gyllenhaal, playing an anarchic baker, is a delight. When he picks out a Wreckless Eric tune on her guitar, he transports himself and the audience to another plane.

Ferrell isn't the only one who does his best and clearly enjoys his role here, as well: Thompson, another actress who never lets vanity get in her way, is the strung-out author who writes and narrates Harold Crick's tale. Thompson, who has been known to pick up a pen and acquit herself quite well, positively radiates authorial despair. Hoffman's scholar is a close relative to Bernard, the existential detective he impersonated wholly in I Heart Huckabees. His quirks are many. Gyllenhaal is quirky and charming.

The only one who seems miscast is Queen Latifah, as Emma Thompson's assistant, sent by her publisher to make sure she finishes her manuscript. The Queen seems uncomfortable and never really makes much of, admittedly, not a big role. But it could have been played with character, and she stays as stiff as those pantsuits she's costumed in (tell me, would Queen Latifah button the buttons on a suit jacket? No way!).

I won't describe the plot any more. It's got a satisfying number of twists and turns, along with the terrific performances. Driving home after the film, I found myself surrounded by characters--not from any of my writing, but clearly people who figure in some narrative, somewhere, or perhaps just in their own. Stranger Than Fiction is a fun little meditation on the nature of literary reality.

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