Comedy/ Cinema/ Theory
by Andrew S. Horton
"Stranger Than Fiction"
I have some advice for Will Ferrell: forget broad comedy. When you're going for the laughs, you try too hard. On the other hand, when you play it dry and dead pan and rein in all that physicality you've been doing since "The Producers," you're a cinch: an exemplary Everyman, such as Harold Crick, the IRS auditor you embody here. Which is not so much because your role is stranger than fiction but that it's a strange form of fiction.
It takes a director (Marc Forster) with a deep taste for fantasy ("Finding Neverland") and story ("Monster's Ball") and a writer with a concept to test the boundaries of both (debuting Zach Helm) to engage in a whacky premise in which the hero (Crick) is the product of a writer's mind as she's writing. Thus, as we see and are introduced to a man ruled by rigid habit and listen as novelist Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) narrates it for the benefit of her muse, Crick goes through all the repetitive motions of the perfect bureaucratic man with no desire or ambition to change a life of rigid but comfortable routine. This pattern of life might have gone on forever except for one development. One day, character Crick hears the novelist Eiffel narrating about him. As though he's her character. In fact, he is.
Eiffel is such a good writer and so high up the literary scale that her work is studied at the college level. Only she hasn't turned in one of her successful modern tragedies to her publisher's for years, preoccupied with how to end this one. So, the publishers have sent out Penny Escher (Queen Latifah) to act as Eiffel's assistant, girl Friday and enabler in all things that could lead to completion and a book to publish.
While Crick is contending with the disconcerting revelation that he's the product of someone's imagination, his life and his job go on. In his official capacity he pays a visit to Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a bakery shop owner and tax underpayer who has purposely subtracted a percentage of her debt to Uncle Sam. The audit starts out simply enough, but there's nothing simple about this lady or the feelings she's bringing out in the agent's bureaucratic spine (among other body areas).
Then, one day, the stakes for Crick go to a new level. Beyond the annoying predicament of having his life determined by a narrator, it's now life itself on the line when the narrative voice refers to an incident that will lead to his death (the very story problem the writer has been struggling with). What?! Survival instincts take over. A consult with two shrinks: Dr. Cayly (Tom Hulce) (against a cloudscape that, I swear, moves) and to the no more therapeutic Dr. Mittag-Leffler (Linda Hunt). The insufficiency of their diagnoses leads him to the only kind of person who can help, a literary expert -- and who more qualified than professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) whose 2nd order of business is to determine whether Crick is in a comedy or a tragedy?
Either way we, and a superbly qualified cast, are in a fresh and original fantasy love story entertainment that will arouse all the literary DNA we possess. The play on reality, both as lived and as authorially created, is a sure bet for a Best Original Screenplay nomination and it's no stretch of the imagination to think so.
~~ Jules Brenner