A Novel Idea Runs Away From Its Narrator
Friday, November 10, 2006
You could watch "Stranger Than Fiction" and enjoy a perfectly fine romance between Will Ferrell and Maggie Gyllenhaal. And why not? Ferrell's deer-in-the-headlights anxiety always has us chuckling at hello, and Gyllenhaal's doe-eyed charm could warm a blueberry muffin at 50 paces.
This time around he's a taxman whose obsession with numbers and routine could use a romantic wake-up call and she's a Manhattan bakery owner with no man in her life. The meet-cute part of the equation? He's auditing her. Aw.
But there's a problem: This romance isn't developed enough to be truly satisfying -- it's like fat-free SnackWell's when you want Godiva. So at the risk of subjecting you to a screenwriting tutorial, we must point out that this affair is meant to be the subplot . It's not the original story we signed up for -- or thought we did.
In case the witness protection program has you living in Vladivostok and you missed the ubiquitous trailer for this movie, "Fiction" is supposed to be about Harold Crick (that's Ferrell) and the voice he keeps hearing in his head.
It belongs to Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), an English writer who just happens to be writing a novel about a character named . . . Harold Crick. The real Harold doesn't appreciate some dulcet-toned Englishwoman narrating the soundtrack of his life. This is the movie's best gimmick: that Harold can actually hear Eiffel. She seems deeply aware of his dull personal life and his obsession with numbers and statistics. (White, ghostly numbers literally float in front of Harold, whenever she starts talking.) Even worse, in her final chapter she plans to . . . kill off the character! The only thing keeping the real Harold alive, apparently, is her creative indecision as she figures out how to get rid of him.
With its delving -- at least, initially -- into Harold's neurotic inner workings, "Stranger Than Fiction" brings to mind movies such as 2002's "Adaptation" and the 2004 "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." In those films, both written by Charlie Kaufman, we become intimately acquainted with the quirks and neuroses of the central character. (Screenwriter Zach Helm has said he conceived of "Stranger Than Fiction" in 2001, which would predate Kaufman's films, at least. But it's hard to imagine Helm and director Marc Forster weren't deeply aware of these movies as they went into production.)
What compels the viewer in all these movies -- and we can also point to 1997's "As Good as It Gets" -- is a sort of moral Odyssey of the brain. The hero has to get over his own mental issues -- think Jack Nicholson avoiding the cracks in "As Good as It Gets" -- to win the love that will complete him spiritually. He has to overcome the personal struggle within to prevail in the romantic one without .
Whether or not "Stranger than Fiction" cribbed from those aforementioned films, it does bring something indisputably original to the table: the notion of a narrator on the loose. We're so used to the disembodied, godlike voice-over no character can hear that when Harold -- at the sound of Kay's voice -- interrupts his toothbrushing, looks wildly around the bathroom and offers a timid "Hello?," we laugh, in part, because we feel like we're entering an exciting, new realm.
We nearly lick our lips, anticipating the intriguing resolutions ahead: how Kay invented Harold, for instance, or what mysterious psychic destiny brought these two together in the first place. Perhaps we contemplate a love in the making. What could be more romantic than a lonely woman inventing a fictional character who becomes her own beshert -- the soul she was forever destined to love?
Unfortunately -- or not, depending on your perspective -- the filmmakers seem to have their minds on some other movie. Which explains why we find ourselves watching the comically tepid relationship between Harold and Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), an eccentric literature professor who devotes himself -- mainly for the convenience of the movie -- to helping Harold shake off that narrator mojo, so he can get on with loving Ana the bakery owner. It's as though two different movies are running side by side: "Eternal Sunshine of Harold's Mind" and "When Harry Met Annie."
Director Forster has an appetite for striking character matchups -- the verboten love between a racist prison guard and the African American wife of a death row prisoner in "Monster's Ball," for instance, or "Peter Pan" creator J.M. Barrie's mystical attraction to the mother and children who inspire him to create the play, in "Finding Neverland." So his decision to emphasize the Harold-Ana romance seems predictable. But it also feels like a retreat.
Perhaps he and Helm realized the Harry-and-Kay story raises more questions than they could answer. Or maybe they heard voices in their heads -- or voice mails, perhaps, from studio executives -- suggesting they stick to the romance because Ferrell and Gyllenhaal are so adorable together.
Which they are. No one since Woody Allen has made perpetual anguish as shriekingly funny as Ferrell. And where Ferrell amuses, Gyllenhaal humanizes. But in That Other Movie, Thompson's essentially twiddling her thumbs. (And the less said about Queen Latifah as her alpha assistant, the better.) Thompson's never permitted to display that aching softness she brought to other romantic comedies such as "The Tall Guy," "Sense and Sensibility" and "Love Actually." She chain-smokes. She looks up forlornly from the typewriter. She paces her room in search of the perfect ending. But without a decent beginning and middle, is it any surprise she has writer's block?
Stranger Than Fiction (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, sexual content, brief profanity and nudity.