Sony // 2006 // 113 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 28th, 2008
Harold isn't ready to go. Period.
"I may all ready be dead, just not typed."
Harold Crick (Will Ferrell, Elf) is one of the most extraordinarily mundane people you will ever meet. He is a quiet, peaceful IRS agent with very few friends and no social skills. He has each and every day planned out to the very second. He is by no means the sort of person who ever actively seeks romance or adventure, and he is perfectly content and comfortable that way. The man doesn't particularly sound like a potentially great literary figure, but that is exactly what he is. Harold begins to hear a voice in his head, a narrator of sorts, describing his actions "accurately and with a better vocabulary."
The voice belongs to a real person named Karen Eiffel (a wonderfully disheveled Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility), an acclaimed novelist. Karen is a chain-smoking recluse who can't seem to find an ending to her book...a book she's writing about Harold Crick, who she does not know really exists. Nor does she know that everything she writes about Harold really happens to Harold...especially considering that's she's planning to kill him off, as she does all the characters in her novels. Fortunately for our protagonist, she is struggling with writer's block. She has her problems, he has his. She gets the unwanted help of a live-in secretary (Queen Latifah, Chicago) from her publisher, Harold solicits the help of a literary scholar, Dr. Jules Hilbert (a terrific supporting turn by Dustin Hoffman, Moonlight Mile).
Considering the fact that Stranger Than Fiction stars Will Ferrell, the plot I have described sounds like the set-up to a comedy. The film could've easily gone the route of Adam Sandler's Click, taking a high concept plot and filling it with silly, obvious gags. Yes, the movie is occasionally funny, but under the guidance of director Marc Forster, it becomes something more. Much like a Charlie Kaufman film (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Stranger than Fiction begins to really explore its premise and work on numerous fascinating levels.
With the help of Dr. Hilbert, Harold sets out to find out whether his story is a comedy or a tragedy. There are certainly a lot of arguments for both sides, and one could say the same thing about Forster's film. It is a pleasant and agreeable movie, but not so comfortable or predictable that we're positive Harold won't be killed in the end. The viewpoint of the Hoffman character is coldly fascinating. He sees the world in literary terms; he is the sort of person who would gladly sacrifice himself for the sake of a truly great piece of art. For him, meeting Harold is like an opportunity to interact and personally observe a protagonist being written about by an author Hoffman is obsessed with. "Little did he know? She said that? I did a whole seminar on little did he know!" To Dr. Hilbert, Harold is merely the literary protagonist, one who must go to whatever end is necessary to allow great art to thrive.
While Hoffman's performance was the standout for me, all the actors find the right notes for their role. Thompson is equally steely and tattered in a solid role as Karen Eiffel, and Maggie Gyllenhaal is sheer perfection as a baker Harold falls in love with. Meanwhile, Will Ferrell is perfectly solid in his quiet leading role, he projects a kind of childlike innocence that's unexpectedly touching. Queen Latifah refreshingly shows admirable restraint here, but unfortunately, her character is entirely unnecessary to the proceedings.
Director Marc Forster creates a remarkable series of events in the final third of the film which I will not reveal. Some may call his ending compromised, which it is, but that's precisely his point. In sacrificing a certain kind of cinematic greatness, he finds something else that is perhaps even more appropriate. Certainly not as grand or memorable as what could have been, but when you think about it, it's the perfect conclusion. I know I sound a bit vague. Just see the film. Here, I think Forster has found a way to have his cake and eat it, too. He has crafted an intelligent, funny, and moving essay on cinema, literature, life, and storytelling in general, all in the guise of a sweet-natured concept comedy. It's as brilliant as it is charming.
The hi-def transfer is not perfect, but pretty solid overall. Blacks are deep and colors are pretty well-balanced. Facial detail is particularly superb. However, minor grain can be seen during a few scenes, and there are even faint flecks every now and then. Audio is very solid, spotlighting the film's very engaging soundtrack. Songs and score are provided by Spoon, and there are also spot-on selections from other artists (a well-picked piece by Vangelis is a highlight). All of the audio elements are distributed evenly.
I purchased Stranger Than Fiction when it was released on DVD, I was pleased to discover that this "Special Edition" brings a variety of brand new supplements to the table. But first, the three featurettes from the original release are reprised. "Actors in Search of a Story" (18 minutes) offers interviews with all the key members of the cast along with comments from Forster on why he chose each actor. "Building the Team" (8 minutes) offers a look at Forster and other important crew members. "Words on a Page" (9 minutes) puts the spotlight on screenwriter Zach Helm and some of the literary themes in the film. In terms of new stuff, we get "Picture a Number: The Evolution of GUI" (17 minutes), which talks about the mathematically-themed graphic user interface effects within the film. "On the Set" (3 minutes) is a very brief collection of behind-the-scenes raw footage set to obnoxious techno music, while "On Location in Chicago" (10 minutes) is a discussion of filming in the windy city. Unfortunately, all of the featurettes are presented in non-anamorphic standard definition.
The most important new supplements are the two commentaries. First up is a filmmaker's commentary track, in which Forster is joined by production designer Kevin Thompson, vfx supervisor Kevin Hauge, director of photography Roberto Schaefer, producer Lindsay Doran, and executive producer Eric Kopeloff. It's a pleasant track, naturally focusing on the technical details of putting together the film. However, I preferred the director and cast track, featuring Forster, Hoffman, and Ferrell. The three gentlemen have a very entertaining chemistry, and it's interesting the way their personalities play off each other. Forster is polite and pleasant, Hoffman is thoughtful and dryly witty, and Ferrell is constantly goofing off. It's a strong track. Finally, we have over 30 minutes of deleted and extended scenes. The film is very precise and well-structured, and most of these scenes feel a little too improvisational for something like this. It's probably a good thing that they were cut. Still, some of these are fun, particularly the complete Kristen Chenowith interview with Emma Thompson.
Stranger Than Fiction is Marc Forster's finest film. As good as dramas like Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland and The Kite Runner are, this one is smarter, sharper, and tighter. A solid hi-def transfer and worthwhile new supplements seal the deal. An easy recommendation.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 4.1 Surround (English)
* English (sdh)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted & Extended Scenes