Monday, November 27, 2006

Review: Stranger Than Fiction


Or: A Little Bit of Literary Theory is a Dangerous Thing. I’ve seen worse films in 2006, but few have made me physically squirm so often with the shallow and stretched quality of their core conceit: that glum IRS accountant Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), insofar as he’s a human being at all, exists in the imagination of a highly annoying, chain-smoking and we suspect not very talented author of death-obsessed novels about The Way We Live Now (Emma Thompson, frankly all over the place). Stranger Than Fiction is perilously pleased with itself and has almost nothing to say, but I was at least hoping for a little charm and deftness of tone, some effective comedy, from such an obviously featherweight effort. In the event, Zach Helm’s debut screenplay, which I have a nasty feeling will pick up this year’s easily-pleased Match Point Oscar nomination, is the precise opposite of good Charlie Kaufman (heavy concepts, light touch) in that it handles its wafty, overfamiliar ideas with great clumsy gauntlets by way of pretending they add up to something. Ferrell is fine as a flummoxed nobody, but as Harold runs around trying to decide if his life conforms to comedy or tragedy, we’re yanked from the film’s nominal comparison-points Adaptation or The Truman Show (as if!) to altogether less inspiring memories of Melinda and Melinda. As for Marc Forster, he’s hired the same d.p. and production designer who made his barely-seen Stay (2005) a gruellingly pretentious watch: they’re evidently much bigger fans of art, books, modernist architecture and psychoanalysis than they are of, say, tax officials, which means that while Harold’s apartment and office are of the low-ceilinged, airless variety of your typical drone worker, everyone else’s look almost dangerously hip and urban. (I bet their next film’s some kind of trippy psychological thriller about a boutique hotelier.) Naturally I wanted to like Maggie Gyllenhaal, who played a gold-digging rebel to utter perfection in Don Roos’ Happy Endings, but even her performance as a seditious baker (!) goes instantly wrong here — how does Forster bungle so much, with a cast of this calibre? After this and Stay I’m almost ready to mount a rearguard defence of the admittedly twee Finding Neverland as its director’s least precocious, fussed-over project, but every one of us has more of a life than Harold and, fingers crossed, better things to do with it. C—

11 comments:

Nick Davis said...

And so I welcome you into my dilemma: I've been staving off the temptation to see this movie, because nothing about it looks inviting or promising, and with so many big guns to keep with through the holiday season, I haven't found any good reason to pony up for this paradoxically modest and heavy-handed diversion. But, I hear talk of a nomination for Thompson, and you know I'd hate to be caught unfamiliar with a major nominee. So I feel like I can't skip it. But then, I doubt she'll really make the list. Which means I should skip it. But then, I can't. And I planned to catch a matinée later today. But then, I just read this, confirming all of my low-ceilinged expectations. So I'm back to whingeing and second-guessing.

Which proves, despite the generosity of your beliefs, that I may indeed have less of a life than Harold Crick, and a less clear idea about how to spend it. Egads!

tim r said...

I was telling someone the other day that I'm fairly sure Thompson will be nominated, precisely because her performance is so unbearably tricked-out, overaccessorised and, to me, like nails on a blackboard. She does more Acting and less acting than she has in years, if you get my drift. And if recent precedent is anything to go by (a certain Ms Zellweger's visage twinkles out at me right now from the soon-to-be-defaced Miss Potter invite on my desk), voters have a habit of falling hook, line and sinker for this shit, right?

I feel your plight, Mr Oscar Completist, but I think you're gonna have to grit your teeth and see it...

Nick Davis said...

Oh me. Oh, dear.

How much worse was this than I even predicted, in my lowest moments? Where does high-concept begin and low-concept end? (A: When the core conceit doesn't make a single whiff of sense, but the film refuses to make its case by supplying anything like coherent feeling or organized structure, or even a discernible mood.)

It seems too slight a movie to make a point of denigrating it, and yet I tremble to think how low the grade might go.

tim r said...

All the way down! You're my hero. I always secretly know movies like this and the similarly misguided Little Children deserve harsher grades than I end up giving them, but what ammo would I have left to express the complete ineptitude of something like Heroes and Villains? Such are the constraints of anyone paid to watch everything...

Goran said...

What is it with this ungodly fixation on the Oscars? Why would you pay to put yourself through a movie you most likely won't enjoy for a performance you most likely won't enjoy and which probably will ultimately be deemed below the standards of a pretentious awards-voting body that has no real credibility among intelligent people who intimately love movies? And why are there so many people willing to put themselves through this every year? I love lists, I love awards, and I love listing and celebrating the best performances of a given year. But the Academy doesn't do either of these things. Why would you want to bestow credibility upon an awards body that is insular and obnoxious enough to only nominate a foreign-language performance once every ten years on average? You're telling me that Reese Witherspoon gave a better, more complex performance in Walk the Line last year than Emmannuelle Devos in Kings and Queen? Or that the bargain basement version of Kate Winslet was better in The Constant Gardener than Juliet Binoche in Hidden or Zhang Ziyi in 2046 or even Emmannuelle Devos in The Beat That My Heart Skipped? Or for that matter that Witherspoon or Weisz (or Charlize Theron or Keira Knightley or Frances McDormand) were also more noteworthy than Miranda July in Me and You and Everyone We Know, Catherine Keener in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Q'Orianka Kilcher in The New World... It's not like I'm saying anything new here, so I'll stop now. But it really frustrates me, this fixation on the Oscars.

tim r said...

I've never taken the adjective "ungodly" as much of an insult, myself...

Goran said...

Ah! But I meant it on a figurative level, wherein the false idol that is the Academy represents Satan: a bunch of democrats and sodomites, who make a fashionable claim to speaking the Truth on the best in cinema, and do their weasly best to tempt the unenlightened masses away from the True, Authentic and All-Knowing Gods such as the conspicuously Oscar-less Luis Bunuel, Jean-Luc Godard, Ernst Lubitsch or Akira Kurosawa (honorary-schmonorary - as Peter O'Toole will tell you, that's an insult more than an award).

tim r said...

Right, so now we worship Satan. Actually, I don't. But I do love seeing what depravities he's annually capable of. It's an addiction, I'm sorry.

Goran said...

Well, listen, admitting you have a problem is the first step.

TF said...

"...Ms Zellweger's visage twinkles out at me right now from the soon-to-be-defaced Miss Potter invite on my desk..."

I like this phrase very much and shall now be using it wherever possible. How strange and blotchy she looks in the trailer, and how small Euan Mcgregor is!

Am vastly looking forward to The Tadpole That Ate Korea. These tough subjects need to be tackled on film. Oh, and stop worshipping Satan, Tim. It's very bad for you.

RC said...

what's really bizarre is that this film received a NBR award for screenwriting.