Stranger than Fiction

Posted: August 25, 2011 by Micah in Movie Reviews

If you were to ask me to watch a Will Ferrell movie I would probably laugh at you. If you were to tell me that said movie also had Queen Latifah and Maggie Gyllenhall I would feed you to the nearest rabid squirrel. Here’s the thing though… that movie exists… and I like it. A lot.

Stranger than Fiction is a movie that utterly mystifies me. The writer has never really done much besides this movie. The directors only other notable movie was Finding Neverland and the cast are mostly people I don’t enjoy. But for some reason, I like this movie.

In my retro-review of The Dark Knight I skipped over my usual plot summary cause I assumed most of my audience was at least vaguely familiar with the story. With Stranger than Fiction one of the reasons I’m calling attention to it is because I’m betting most people haven’t seen it. Thus, here comes a plot summary:

The Plot: Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is a boring man. He works for the IRS, goes to work, returns from work, and goes to bed. Rinse and repeat. Until one day he starts hearing voices… well to be entirely accurate a voice. And rather then telling him to plant tiny cactuses or to tie his gummy bears together and use them as formal wear this voice just sort of narrates.  It talks about what he’s doing, his thoughts, feelings, and whatever actions he happens to be doing. Understandably, Harold is a bit creeped out by this especially when the narrator (who seems to have intimate and spot on details about his life) says that he will die. Soon.

Harold begins desperately searching for “the Narrator” of his life and is confronted head on with his own mortality and the over all waste that his life has been thus far. Meanwhile, the audience is introduced to author Karen Eiffel who is in the midst of writing a book (as authors are wont to do) and is desperately trying to find out the best way to kill her main character: Harold Crick.

That’s a basic summary of the plot. Maggie Gyllenhall gets introduced as Harold’s love interest somewhere in there and Dustin Hoffman plays an English professor who attempts to help Harold solve his narrator problem but the main crux of the story is there.

So what makes this movie worth watching? What makes a movie featuring two people I mostly despise one of my favorites? Honestly? It’s hard to say.

The storyline:

The story is (obviously) one of the most important things in any movie. You can have the best special effects team, the best stunt coordinators, and even some great actors but without a good story what do you have? Star Wars Episode 1. That’s what. And who wants that? Nobody.

Stranger than Fiction has a great story that doesn’t move too quickly but doesn’t ever drag, and keeps you one hundred percent engaged. The characters are all real and completely believable and Emma Thompson’s narration is spot on and heartfelt. It’s a story that keeps you engaged and never lets you get away, while at the same time not constantly bludgeoning you overhead the head with the premise.

The acting:

Will Ferrell impressed me with this movie. Impressed me a lot in fact. Allow me to briefly wax eloquent on comedies and the -ians who perform them:

 Wax on: It is really hard to be funny for an hour and a half to two hours in a movie while at the same time adhering to a central storyline. Do I think Will Ferrell is funny? Absolutely. But most comedies (and I want to be very clear that when I say most I mean “not all”) start with a funny idea or concept and then go downhill from there. The problem is; a hilarious idea or concept can get lost within the multiple layers, scripts, and added junk that gets thrown into movies. That’s why so many Saturday Night Live stars (Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler spring to mind) have movies with hilarious portions but which aren’t that funny on the whole. It sounds like a great idea to build a movie around two male figure skaters joining a couples skating competition because they’re no longer allowed to skate as singles. But can you really take that idea and turn it into a funny two hour long movie? No. No you cannot. I have proof. To me, the funniest movies are built around a central storyline and become funny because of things that happen in the process of telling that story. Some great illustrations for the “story vs. cool idea” battle are the Matrix movies.

The original Matrix was a movie with an amazing storyline! It was well put together, the script was good, Laurence Fishburn was awesome, and Keanu Reeves finally found a part where he could stand around and look utterly emotionless and have it be called legitimate acting. The movie also had some of the coolest fight scenes ever. Now Matrix 2 had amazing fight scenes that were at least as good as, or better than, those in the first movie; but the story just didn’t work. It was a bad movie. There were twenty minutes of very cool stuff in there, but it was a bad movie. Now, both movies had roughly the same amount of awesome-face-punching but one of them had a great story that the fight scenes were built around, while the other had a horrible story built around the fight scenes.

The same thing goes for comedies. If I have a movie with a great storyline, interesting characters, and ten minutes of genuinely hilarious dialogue (like say… Stranger than Fiction) I have a great movie on my hands. But if I have a patchwork storyline, bland/uninteresting characters, and ten minutes of genuine hilarity that will be a movie called Year One… I mean Talladega Nights… I mean Gulliver’s Travels… I mean… you get the idea.

This is why TV is generally a better medium for comedy. If you can come up with ten genuinely hilarious minutes on a TV show you’ll do great! The audience doesn’t have time to think “wow that character is poorly realized” or “man this scene is dragging” they laugh for ten minutes, smile for ten minutes while they think about what they were laughing about, watch ten minutes worth of commercials and you’re done! I write an entire show based around that very principle!

I will now step off my soap box, return from the rabbit trail, ring around the rosy and…

Wax off: All that to say, Will Ferrell is genuinely a very funny person and has always been a surprisingly good actor. He shows off both those talents in this movie. Harold Crick is such an interesting character and Ferrell absolutely nails every aspect of him.

Emma Thompson: She does an amazing job as the eccentric writer of Harold Crick’s life. Thompson is one of the most singularly overlooked actresses around today but she constantly turns in high quality performances. I have nothing but respect for her as an actor and she does such a great job with this character that the fact that her assistant is played by one of my least favorite “actors” ever (“Queen” Latifah) is forgivable. (What exactly is she the Queen of anyway? Is that her real name? Did her parents gather around her when she was born and decide to be unbearably pretentious?… kind of like that last sentence was.)

Dustin Hoffman: While not exactly my favorite actor ever, I think Hoffman can definitely hold his own against just about anyone. He does a great job playing the very practical “voice of reason” sort of character in the movie. He has some amazing scenes with Ferrell that the two play incredibly well.

In Conclusion:

Stranger than Fiction is a movie that is SO incredibly different from most of the other movies that I like. But it’s so incredibly well done, well acted, and well written that you can’t help but get sucked into its world and invested in its characters. It’s a movie that somehow pulls off being about hope and love and strength without feeling cliché or overbearing. A movie that creates characters and lets them breathe and talk and live rather then hustling them off into situational comedy and sex jokes.

It’s a movie for men who are getting tired of watching other men senselessly stab each other with boar tusks (which I’m a fan of) and for women tired of watching shallow, attractive people fall in love (which I am not a fan of). It’s a movie that reminds us of what we should really be looking for in life and who we should be trying to be without slamming us with a guilt trip. It’s a movie that I give…

A 5 out of 5.

In Conclusion to the Conclusion: Man… Two 5 out of 5’s in a row? I must be getting soft… or developing a soul… or something. I need to find a movie to hate soon here or… I don’t know… I’ll get all sensitive and things.

Ew.

 

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