Stranger Than Fiction
Director: Marc Forster
Starring: Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah
Go see this movie.
The review could end there, because it’s one of those movies that the more you describe it, the more you’re taking away from the viewer’s eventual experience.
Director Mark Forster (“Monster’s Ball,” “Finding Neverland”) and first-time screenwriter Zach Helm produce a film that manages to succeed at everything it’s trying to do. The cast is terrific, the story elements expertly balanced, the pacing, design, tone all spot-on. Will Ferrell pulls off the kind of surprising performance Jim Carey managed in “The Truman Show” and Adam Sandler brought to “Punch Drunk Love,” two more movies in which comics known mostly for low-brow, over-the-top comedies stepped up to the challenges of more human, nuanced films. “Stranger Than Fiction,” though, is better — more touching and thought-provoking — than either.
Ferrell’s crisis throws him out of his solitary rut and into the office of a quirky literary professor (a likeably deadpan Hoffman) and the arms of a socialist baker (the always wonderful Gyllenhaal). The story culminates, as Ferrell figures out what is happening, in a brief scene between him and Thompson that should bring a tear to your eye.
Ferrell rises to a pretty high occasion, sharing screen time with Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Ferrell plays a dead-boring, solitary IRS agent who one day realizes the voice of Emma Thompson is in his head, narrating his life as though he were a novel. Freaking out as this mysterious voice invades his humdrum life, Ferrell could easily have overplayed the comic moments, reducing the film to a two-hour Saturday Night Live sketch. He and Forster have the sense to keep the moments as real as possible, given the crazy and/or supernatural device of the narration.
Helm’s script is a fine example of “magical realism,” the literary style for which Gabriel Garcia Marquez is the poster octogenarian. The story plays straight with elements that don’t fit our general recognition of how the world works. It doesn’t particularly explain them, it just presents them as facts, like gravity, that affect how the protagonist lives his life.
Small loose threads woven through the film come together, and brief moments and well-chosen details pay off in a fantastic world that manages to be entirely believable and often moving. Part of the plot revolves around the developing relationship between Ferrell and Gyllenhaal, and managing to gracefully walk the overtrodden path of cinema romance in a way that’s fresh and resonant is no small achievement on the filmmakers’ parts.
Forster starts out with a very heavy directorial hand that emphasizes the idea of the narrator’s novelistic view of Ferrell’s life, but the more real the story becomes to us, the more his style retreats, though he never gives up a love for an oddly composed shot or a quirkily roving camera. It calls to mind a line of Hoffman’s as he tries to help Ferrell make sense of his plight: “Let’s start at the ridiculous and move backward.”
A concise mission statement for an excellent film.