Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Movie Review: Stranger than Fiction

I am a sucker for concept movies. At first viewing, I loved Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Adaptation and Memento were pretty good as well. Lest I forget Fight Club, another clever one. So it's unsurprising that I began to worry that my rave reviews relied only upon that a film have a surreal concept. Fortunately, Stranger than Fiction's failure as a concept movie proved I had inordinately worried.

The movie begins with clever computer graphics that emphasize the mundane exercises around which Will Ferrell's Harold Crick bases his life. Crick works as an auditor in the Internal Revenue Service who one day discovers that his life is actually a construct for a book written by acclaimed author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson). You've seen this man before. He was played by Kevin Spacey in American Beauty, Edward Norton in Fight Club, Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This is not to mock the common theme in movies of the existential crisis provoked by meaningless work; on the contrary, it is one of the perenially ripe subjects of our age.

The problem is, Stranger than Fiction assumes that a "masterpiece"--the compliment that Dustin Hoffman's English lit professor, Jules Hilbert, bestows upon Eiffel's book--need only present a story that we already know well. Death and Taxes, as the book is called, has barely progressed before we find out that Eiffel has spent years wrestling writers block on the subject of how to kill off Crick. I am usually impressed that authors don't get writers block more often, but I find it hard to believe that a talented writer becomes inert for ten years over killing a character off. Unless the story is a murder mystery, the death seems relatively inconsequential to the larger purpose of the novel.

I wanted to love Stranger than Fiction because it is not often that a zany English professor is one of the protagonists in a film, and moreover, that he is permitted to make clever jokes that appeal to a more literate audience. Unfortunately, Professor Hilbert only came in handy in scenes that would have totally bombed without a closing pithy remark.

No one actor, even Queen Latifah in her absolutely pointless role as Eiffel's publishing company's assistant, ruined the film, though. Stranger than Fiction's problem is that its central concept rendered itself pointless. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the concept--a device that allows the lead couple to forget their turbulent relationship and (unintentionally) reunite--imparts meaning: to be careful for what you wish, to learn how to embrace or at least accept the past, painful as it sometimes is, to question the wisdom of fate if it indeed exists as a phenomenon. In Stranger than Fiction, nothing about Crick's life as product of third person omniscient narration adds meaning to the story. The movie could have easily been about a boring IRS agent who finds love in an unconventional baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and learns how to live life to its fullest, sans cool script device; however, without the gimmick it probably would not have stood out among the pack.


Chris said...

I think the reason why you have a problem with the film Elaine is because you've understood it on a literal basis. Without getting into the usual rubbish authors spout about characters becoming part their lives, etc. I think the reason Eiffel can't kill her character is because she feels she must kill him off, but there really is no reason to. So she has been searching for a death that would supply a reason - and she finds it in the selfless act of saving the kid from the bus.

When you look at the film in a metaphorical/metaphysical level, the reason she can't kill him in the end becomes clear. The film is clearly focusing on the age-old fate vs. free will debate. Additionally, it plays with idea that the closest human beings can come to having the power of the Creator is art/literature [read for Dorothy Sayers' Mind of the Maker for more]. So, I think it's fascinating to think about Eiffel as a Creator/God of sorts interacting with her creation; since she's human it's complicated so in that sense the plot is completely hypothetical. I could go on talking about this, but I'll stop. But the fact that I could (and feel it's completely inadequate comment on the film), I think, points to the fact, that this movie's potentially more interesting than you give it credit for.

Elaine said...

What you say makes perfect sense, and though you suggest otherwise, it was in fact clear to me that the movie attempts to probe the fate vs. free will theme/ argument. I just do not think it succeeded.

In fact, I think you are trying to infer from the movie something that the movie did not convey.

First of all, there is no indication that Eiffel realizes her need to kill her protagonist is lacking in reason. Crick approaches Eiffel at the end asking her to spare him. She seems to respond to the human being in front of her, asking for mercy (though in the end, Crick concludes that maybe his life is more interesting if it's made short). There is no indication from this interaction and the subsequent events, in my opinion, that Eiffel has decided that the answer is to make Crick's death more meaningful, though I supppose it could be interpreted that way. The idea of the artist trying to exercise the powers of the Creator in his/her work is fascinating, but I do not think the movie communicates the theme well.

In any case, the two strands of the film that come together at the end--the bus driver and the boy on his bike--are very forced and under-developed. Even with this supposed plot twist, it still seems as if Eiffel is stooping to find a reason to kill off Crick--look, he's such a good guy, he saved a kid from an accident! The reason it seems this way is because those two subplots are so under-developed.

Furthermore, the film suggests that Eiffel's book is a masterpiece if Crick gets killed off but isn't if he lives, but you write that she has no actual reason to kill him off, so she needs to find one, to imbue his death with meaning. It would have been interesting if the movie had explored the conflicting interpretations people have of death: the "everything happens for a reason" school versus the "shit happens" school; but it didn't. So to say on the onehand that Crick's death in its original conception would have been frivolous kind of contradicts what the movie is trying to convey, which is that his senseless death makes the book a masterpiece. As I said in my entry, I thought the movie did a terrible job of conveying why Crick's death makes Death and Taxes a masterpiece, but anyhoo...

I'm just not sure what the movie is actually trying to say about the relationship of the author to her work or the degree to which man navigates his life, and I don't think it's because I'm too dense to get it, as you imply, but rather because the film did not know how to work with its clever idea.

Your interpretation raises interesting ideas, but I feel you are giving too much credit to the screenplay author.

Chris said...

I get your hangup about whether or not the novel is a masterpiece. I think most literature and standards for literature today are pretty much crap so the whole question was kind of ridiculous to me, as I suppose it was for you.

I wasn't implying that you were too dense to get it, but the fact that the movie in 2006 tried to deal with these somewhat lofty, yet ancient ideas, is notable. Perhaps I am giving the screenwriter too much credit, but that's pretty what literary/film critics/professors have done since the academic niche was created. Going back to the interaction between reader/viewer and author though: there are three parts to every work of art. The author, the medium and the interpreter. It's the space between the last two where our interpretations come from - and why everyone's opinions about "art" in various forms matter.

Elaine said...

fact that the movie in 2006 tried to deal with these somewhat lofty, yet ancient ideas, is notable.

HELP!! :) said...

Hey guys, I have to make a fake director's commentary to this movie for a school assignment, worth a good chunk of my final mark. The commentary should only focus on 10 minutes from any part of the film.
I was wondering if you could help me out with this. What 10 minute section should I do? What are the themes of that section?
I would greatly appreciate this help!
-btw this is due in 5 days :)