On the occasion of Marc Forster ushering into theaters a new film that plays with the idea of famed fictional characters intermingling with the real world, I’ll rustle up my old review for this earlier effort with some superficial similarities. Stranger Than Fiction is a film I found more ingratiating on subsequent viewings, and not just because the “Whole Wide World” scene haunts me as the precise experience I’m sure I missed out on because I never learned to play guitar.
Director Marc Forster has an oddly toneless quality to his work. His directing is smooth enough, obedient to the writing and allowing room for the actors to bring their own personalities and approaches to the material. And it’s not as if his choice of shots is limited to plain vanilla choices. In his latest, Stranger Than Fiction there’s some occasional elegant shot construction, and a few trick shots (from inside a shower head, for example) that are actually a little off-putting. He’s not a bad director by any means, but across three films of significance (like the rest of America, I never saw Stay) the common characteristic of his work is a lack of that little surge of spirited creativity that can make the end product into something truly remarkable.
In this case, though, the end product is still pretty good. Stranger Than Fiction is the sort of film that Charlie Kaufman made safe for Hollywoodland. In the film, Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an I.R.S. auditor who suddenly finds his mundane life being narrated by a voice only he can hear. This development quickly transforms from a maddening annoyance to a matter of some urgency when the disembodied voice promises Harold’s impending death, sending him on a quest to find the narrator and urge her to reconsider.
The metafictional elements are the most obvious tie to Kaufman’s beloved screenplays, but the film also shares his wry romanticism. What it has that’s unique is its literate nature. This manifests itself most obviously is some of the conversations Harold has with a literature professor played by Dustin Hoffman. Getting to the bottom of his situation and finding the author of his life means determining the nature of the story being told, leading to some nicely constructed exchanges that hinge on the trappings of different forms of fiction. But Zach Helm’s script is also filled with warmly witty turns of phrase or simply drawn but nicely eloquent character moments. Here, Forster’s seeming fidelity to the words on the page pays off. Letting the screenplay carry the film proves an effective approach, even if it falters a bit at the end. The problem with writing something so Kaufmanesque is that the same pitfalls he struggles against are likely waiting, and endings are especially difficult to pull off in these existential fantasias.
Will Ferrell fiercely tones down his overwired presence in the title role, proving that his comic timing doesn’t need excessive volume and go-for-broke mania. Indeed, he proves to be an especially charming straight man, wringing laughs from quietly pained reactions to the strangeness of his situation. Hoffman continues his late-career tendency to winningly futz around with the details in performances that hardly test his limits, but are no less winning for it. Emma Thompson apparently chatted a lot with Hoffman on the set, as she basically takes the same approach as the acclaimed novelist who unwittingly presides over Crick’s life, and it proves equally charming for her.
It sometimes seems as if Stranger Than Fiction is striving for bigger, deeper points than it’s really capable of making. It’s not much more than a little, clever entertainment. Sometimes, of course, that’s enough.