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'Stranger Than Fiction' Needs a Rewrite
Will Ferrell without energy is a movie destined to fail
Brian Orndorf (briano)     Print Article 
Published 2006-11-10 08:24 (KST)   
©2006 Sony Pictures
Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is a best-selling author battling a debilitating case of writer's block. Stuck trying to complete her latest novel, she's lost her sanity searching for a way to kill her lead character, Harold Crick. The real Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is a meek IRS clerk situated in a perfectly timed life with no sense of adventure. When he starts to hear Eiffel's voice narrating his daily rituals, Crick fears insanity, and panics when that narration turns into a grand design for his murder. Desperate for help from doctors (Dustin Hoffman) and romantic interests (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Crick searches for Eiffel, hoping to prevent his literary fate from happening for real.

There's a paper thin line between clever and cute, and "Stranger than Fiction" doesn't know what side to stand on. It's a jovial enough journey into the mind of the homogeneous man, freckled with the type of turtleneck wit that makes the average moviegoer feel intelligent and the intelligent moviegoer feel not so guilty they셶e decided to enter a multiplex for their weekend dose of cinema nutrition. Mostly though, "Fiction" is one large false start, unable to claw out of the pit of its own toxic self-awareness.

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Zach Helm's screenplay has flagrant Charlie Kaufman ("Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation") overtones rocketing out of it that are impossible to ignore. It's cleverness for cleverness sake, and it needs a filmmaker who can transcend that level of Starbucks-fueled invention; however, director Marc Forster is not it.

Forster is a technically inclined filmmaker, which comes in handy when trying to isolate Crick's mathematical mind in the equations that visually construct on screen whenever his brain starts to whir. The early scenes assembling Crick's straight-arrow life are given the right twist of nippy emptiness, and suggest that Forster has a firm grip on the whole enterprise.

Trouble is, Forster is not a funny director, and "Fiction" has aspirations, as faint as they may be, of becoming a life-affirming romantic comedy. Very little in the film, outside of Gyllenhaal's wibberly-wobbly performance as a small time anarchist baker, smacks of the lunacy that seems intended in Helm's script. Forster doesn't have much of a history for lighthearted cinema ("Monster's Ball," "Stay," "Finding Neverland"), and "Fiction" proposes that perhaps there's not much of future either.

Watching Will Ferrell try a dramatic role is like being on the world's most dangerous roller coaster when it breaks down inches from the big drop. I can see what Ferrell is looking to accomplish in "Fiction" and I value his effort to stretch his acting muscles, but watching him try to inhabit the body of a docile soul doesn't work for the actor or the film. Ferrell mopes around "Fiction" looking like he wants to burst, but the screenplay pins him down like an abusive older brother.

Ferrell is a marvelous talent, but he's no Jack Lemmon, and has difficulty pulling off the twitchy straight man role without shutting down like a robot fresh out of batteries. He needs the right scripted spirit to help him muzzle his inner goofball desires. All "Fiction" asks him to do is sleepwalk around the movie while the quirks do the work for him.

The last act of "Fiction" bites off far more than it can chew, not only in trying to find a proper resolution for the complicated tale, but using that resolution to comment on the nature of pleasing distinguished artistic impulses vs. giving the unwashed masses what they want. Under Forster's watch, this is simply too much eccentricity for "Fiction" to bear, and the whole "life rocks!" resolution of the film is buried alive under an anemic, self-conscious Kaufmanesque weight that is intolerable. If there was ever a film that tried way too hard to seem important with too little effort to show for their troubles, "Stranger than Fiction" would be it.

©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Brian Orndorf

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