Wednesday, 27 September 2006

Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

Little did he know that this seemingly innocuous comedy would become his best film ever...

This may not be the golden age of comedy in Hollywood, but it’s about good as it gets for audiences. With Robin Williams, Tim Allen, Steve Martin now reduced to doing sequels or comedies involving babysitting little tykes, the fort is held by luminaries like Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider, Jim Carrey, and Will Ferrell. Almost all 4 are Saturday Night Life regulars (Carrey auditioned but was never chosen), these are brilliant comedians who have brought their often low-brow, sketch-based comic sensibilities to the big screen feature. Their comedies have started to shine with sophistication lately, and the new trend appears to be starring in a deep movie or playing a dramatic actor. The Truman Show, Man on the Moon, and Spanglish are the finest semi-dramatic and serious movies from this group, but as Click, The Cable Guy, and Benchwarmers show, there are certain pitfalls that make these ventures iffy propositions: the lead actor/comedian may succumb to common sentimentality, melodrama, or the dramatic half of the movie may never gel with its comic half. On occasion , the actor may not be up to the task of being a lead dramatic actor at all (witness Sandler in Click).

Stranger Than Fiction is the first ‘serious’ comedy effort of Will Ferrell, who plays the part of a senior IRS agent Harold Crick, a mindnumbingly boring salaryman who lives alone, eats his meals alone, has never taken a day off in the past decade of work, and exults in a fixed routine for even the most mundane of tasks. And then, he discovers a voice narrating every detail of his movements – which tends to be annoying and somewhat distracting – like a disease that one may be afflicted from, but will not die of. It’s a quiet sort of comedy for the audience, especially playing off the ironic tone of the Voice (Emma Thompson) against the un-self-aware demeanour of Ferrell, and his realisation that the Voice may be less innocuous than he suspected. And here’s the twist in the gimmick: If something happens in his life, is it his fault or was it premeditated by the Voice?

The plot gets into full steam when Harold manages to miss his bus for the first time in years, and overhears the Voice narrating "Little did he know that this seemingly innocuous incident would lead to his imminent death." So what do you do when there’s a voice in your head that sounds as if it’s reading a book that you’re a character in, and warns of your imminent death? You could begin a course of medication. But perhaps it would be a good idea to find out, as Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), Lit Prof and pool lifeguard, suggests, to find out if your life is a comedy or a tragedy. It should be easy: in a comedy, the main character ends up married to someone who initially hates their very guts (just think of your TCS 8 comedy serials, please), and in a tragedy, the main character dies. And so begins Harold Crick’s re-evaluation of his life, and his attempt to subvert Fate and the Voice.

Just the setup alone shows the ambitiousness of the writers, who not only want a comedy starring Will Ferrell as the foil (Thompson and Hoffman are the comics), but a tragicomedy that references Italo Calvino, metafiction, and English Literature for Dummies. Even though this is a perfect recipe for failure, Stranger Than Fiction succeeds because Will Ferrell plays his role with an effortless charm, truly inhabiting the role of a man almost thoroughly lacking in self-awareness. It’s a role that his talented contemporaries like Sandler can never pull off because in their minds they are the star of the show, the centre of attention. What separates Ferrell from Sandler, Carrey, and Schneider is his ability to pull off the straight man role so essential to this movie.

Stranger Than Fiction also succeeds because it is clever yet accessible. The metafiction gimmick is used without being obscure or deliberately cultured. Thanks to the script and the great lines given to Dustin Hoffman, the entire literary feel to this comedy is made ordinary and familiar so that the plot can go on at a swift pace, like something one would see in a television sitcom should sitcom writers grow a brain someday.

Plot-wise, this movie feels like a coherent movie and not a series of rough sketches stapled together by a writing team – a problem glaringly obvious in comedies produced in the past 2 years. The inspired idea of blending tragedy with comedy (after all, the audience should never know how Harold Crick will end up!) is far better executed than Adam Sandler’s Click, where the tragedy overwhelmed the comedy and veered into cheap faux-Capraesque sentimentality by the third act.

Does Harold Crick die at the end of this movie? Now that the writers have attempted to write a comic into a semi-serious, clever but not snooty, finely balanced tragicomedy, you’ll know the outcome will be appropriate and convincing. And of course, really funny.

First published at incinemas on 28 December 2006

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