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Wed November 8, 2006
Stranger than Fiction
Never reaches its potential.
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
"Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." Benjamin Franklin
Death and Taxes is the name of the novel (an unsubtle determinism about that title) Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is trying to finish as she tries to figure out how her protagonist, Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) will die. The only problem is he lives and carries out daily the life she is writing for him. Yes, the film has a decidedly Twilight Zone quirkiness that does not hold up well to even the smallest logical question.
Stranger than Fiction is a strange fish indeed: It's a slow starter partly because Ferrell underplays his I.R.S. agent as an extremely introverted nerd obsessed by his job, numbers, and his rigid daily routine. He doesn't crack a smile, especially when he hears the author's voice in his head narrating the events he is living out. Ferrell's underplayed performance makes me long for his Talladega Nights redneck race driver. That Maggie Gyllenhaal's hip baker, Ana Pascal, could fall in love with Ferrell's taxing twit is a symptom of the screenplay's overall imbalance.
Not until Harold pursues answers through a bright literary expert (Dustin Hoffman) and love through a baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) does the film get life and begin deconstructing fictional theory in an attempt to extricate Harold from the inevitable (Eiffel always kills off her heroes). There is something of Charlie Kaufman's struggles with writer's block in Adaptation as his story becomes real, and even a bit of Click with its hero's ability to go into the past and future and bypass the bad stuff. Yet this film is easier on the intellect than Adaptation and more serious than Click.
The film attempts to deal with the limitations of authorship, the devastation of writer's block, and the urge to break through the conventions writers inflict on themselves in their own canons. None of these topics is explored fully enough although I am grateful for their presence. The arbitrariness of the tax system, the need to make the most out of the present, the deterministic universe where a steam-shovel could change your life, and the acceptance of death receive at least a modicum of attention, raising the film from just another strange production to a thoughtful one that never reaches its potential.
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE 90.5's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm and on demand anytime. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com