Sunday, November 12, 2006

MovieWatch: "Stranger Than Fiction"

"Stranger Than Fiction"
Director: Marc Forster
Fien Print Rating: 61
In a Nutshell: Screenwriter Zach Helm has used a high-flying intellectual premise and mushed it down into a simple-minded fable in "Stranger Than Fiction," a film that starts off trying to appeal to fans of the literary meta-text, aficionados of Charlie Kauffman-style post-modernism, and ends up most appealing to fans of fell-good stories, New Age self-affirmation tales. I don't doubt that Helm is a darned smart writer. I doubt that he's written a smart movie here.

The man-hears-narrator premise is a good one, but it's not the kind of thing that makes writers go "Damn, I wish I thought of that" so much as "Damn, I wish I'd actually written my own script that had that idea." "Stranger than Fiction" is close kin to "The Truman Show," a half-dozen Charlie Kaufman scripts, "I [Heart] Huckabees" and even, in some difficult-to-quantify-ways, "Punchdrunk Love."

Many of those films, for whatever reason, have been vehicles for broad comic actors to Play It Straight (code for Underplay to the Point of Sleepwalking). Will Ferrell stars in "Stranger" and gives a solid performance that never for a second made me stop thinking "Geez, if Paul Giamatti were playing this role, I'd like this movie at least twice as much." I credit director Marc Forster for getting Maggie Gyllenhaal's most purely appealing (and incontestably sexy) performance in several years and for rounding up unimpeachable pros like Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson.

But the end of the day, despite all of its intellectual tricky and structural deception, "Stranger Than Fiction" is nothing more than the latest in a never-ending series of schmaltzy fictions about men (and women, though less frequently based on how often Hollywood hires women to write things) who only discover how to truly live when they're faced with death. While you get good movies in the genre, unexpected films like "Fearless," but far more often you get "The Doctor" or "Regarding Henry." The almost provocative idea -- that people who feel powerless in their own lives have to create a greater guiding force (a narrator, God, Xenu, Dr. Phil) to give their lives purpose is almost entirely invalidated by the progression of the plot.

[Spoilers here regarding the ending of the film...]

For this reason, I found the ending of the movie almost depressing. Crick decides to be a Biblical Jesus rather than a "Last Temptation of Chris" Jesus -- He sacrifices himself, which leads to rebirth, rather than deciding to take his fate in his own hands and determine his own life. Meanwhile, the author learns to sacrifice the artistic merit of her work for a soft-headed moralistic message, tacking on a useless message that even she admits will cause her to rewrite the rest of the book, a book that both characters who read it described as a masterpiece (Dubious readers in both cases, but still). All she's done is sacrificed one simplistically ironic ending -- Crick is most alive at the moment he dies -- for another -- Crick's watch, which previously ruled his life saves it. Yawn. Is that really the most creative thing Helm, thinking of himself as a profound writer, could think of to do? I almost crave a movie in which the narrator is somehow the creation of Crick's unused artistic desire, an unwilled construct of his inactivity. And why did Queen Latifah's character end up being literal and not an entry way for something deeper? I really wanted her to be imaginary, but she seems not to have been. Boo.

[OK. Done spoiling the movie.]

I'm sure I have more to say beyond that, but this is too long already. Here's the key: I went in expecting Charlie Kauffman For Dummies (Kaufman doesn't know how to end his movies either), but "Stranger Than Fiction" doesn't want to be that challenging at the end. It wants to engender warm feelings, more than discussion. I guess that's OK, but whatever...

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