Judge Eric Profancik also hears voices. His tell him that he is the Redeemer and they'll pay, oh yes, they'll pay for what they've done.
He's not crazy. He's just written that way.
"Little did he know…"
Many of us love Will Ferrell. I'm a fan of his work but not all of it. I find that most of his over-the-top, broad humor misses the mark, like in Anchorman and Talladega Nights. As a supporting character, he brings a lot of power to roles, helping make the ensemble stronger, like in Saturday Night Live or Austin Powers. When he's a leading man, I find myself wanting a smaller, more intimate Ferrell. I want his comedic presence, but I want it restrained. Give me something a touch more natural, not so high on caffeine, and I know I'll have a better viewing experience. With Stranger Than Fiction, that's the Will Ferrell we get. We find a comedic actor giving a dramatic performance, but one that's not horribly awful like Patch Adams. If you fear the antics of a hyper Ferrell, fear not; this movie is nothing like that. It's a controlled yet funny film.
Facts of the Case
Harold Crick (Will Ferrell, Zoolander) is an IRS auditor who lives a very boring life with few friends and activities outside of work. He loves numbers, and he sees numbers everywhere he goes. Flowing from his work and affinity for numbers are daily compulsions to do things the same way, all the time. This leads to a precise routine of getting up, going to work, coming home, and going to sleep.
Quite unexpectedly Harold's life changes when he begins to hear a voice. Has he gone crazy? He doesn't think so, for the voice, the Narrator, is a well-spoken, British, female (Emma Thompson, Love Actually), detailing the mundane events of his life. Harold is, of course, wildly disturbed by the voice; but things become much worse when she utters the following sentence:
"Little did he know that this simple seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death."
As everything else she said has been accurate, he believes he's going to die. He needs help. First, he goes to a psychiatrist who believes he's schizophrenic. Harold disregards that idea, and then goes to see a literary specialist, Professor Jules Hibbert (Dustin Hoffman, Confidence). Though quite skeptical at first, Hibbert eventually believes Harold's story.
So while Harold finds himself enmeshed in a difficult audit with a beautiful baker, Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal, World Trade Center), he also has to find out who is narrating his life and how he's going to stay alive.
"The voice isn't telling me to do anything. It's telling me what I've already done, accurately and with a better vocabulary."
Stranger Than Fiction plays out like a drama, where someone is going just a wee bit insane. It almost seems real, but then you realize the entire hook of the movie is quite preposterous. How could Harold Crick, a "real" man, actually be a character in a book? It's a silly idea, yet it works in this film. As ridiculous an idea it is, as you're watching the movie, it seems oddly plausible. You are sucked into the world of Harold Crick. You see what a lonely schlub he is, you get vested in his life, and you root for him to find the Narrator and save his life. "Find the Narrator and save his life." It's certainly off-the-wall when you say it.
But you aren't saying it, you're watching it, and you believe it. How is that possible? Remarkably, it's because of Will Ferrell's inspired performance. He is Harold Crick. He makes such an ordinary man someone you care about and root for. It's a heartfelt, warm, funny, touching, subtle performance from the man that did just the opposite in Kicking and Screaming. We think of Ferrell as a mad comedian, and don't realize he has talent. He does so many loud, boisterous roles that we fail to realize he has the capacity to be a truly fine actor. Still, let's hope he stays in the area of comedy or light drama. We certainly don't need another Robin Williams on our hands (or even Williams himself, for that matter).
We are fortunate in that Ferrell's is not the only great work in the movie. With such a high-wattage lineup, I'm surprised to give the next big kudos to Maggie Gyllenhaal. I know she has her fans and has done great work, but I seem to have missed most of it. (I wasn't overly impressed by her in World Trade Center.) Here, however, she's perfect as Ferrell's love interest. She's positively sweet and charming, and the two have excellent chemistry—despite the age difference ("only" 10 years but…). Though their roles aren't as meaty or challenging, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson do solid work. The only weak link is Queen Latifah's (Chicago) role as Emma's assistant. It's an unnecessary part that doesn't add much to the plot and isn't as fleshed out as a result.
Obviously it's not just acting that makes the film, but also the script and direction. The script by Zach Helm, his first movie writing credit, creates a slightly unreal world with situations and people you like. It's wholly remarkable that you believe the premise, and more incredible how vested you are as we approach Harold's "imminent death." Will he die? Won't he die? I got a bit worked up in this scene. And putting it all together is director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland). His deft touch makes Stranger Than Fiction a real winner.
Lastly, a small note to Forster and his special effects crew for the ingenious "G.U.I." (as they call it) in the film. Harold and his affection for numbers are visualized in the film, and it adds a different, appealing look to the movie.
For the DVD, I have to start with my rising frustration with Sony. Stranger Than Fiction marks the second DVD in as many weeks that will not play in my primary machine. First is was Casino Royale and now this one, and all the DVD will do is spin incessantly without finding the "root menu." Oddly, it works without a flaw in my older player. I presume it could be the player's fault, but I lay blame on Sony and their overly aggressive encryption, anti-pirating system that is preventing legitimate customers from watching their product. (And, for the record, every single copy protection scheme on a DVD can be busted with minimal fuss. It's all for nothing.)
Once I got the DVD working, I found a good transfer but weak bonus materials. The video is a 1.85:1 anamorphic print that didn't wow or disappointment me. It looked as bright, shiny, and happy as I would expect for a newer movie. Colors were accurate, blacks were rich, and all those details were easy to see. For the audio, you have a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that, again, was par for the course. As Stranger Than Fiction is dialogue intensive, only the center channel gets any bit of a workout, and all dialogue is clear and free of distortion. The other speakers are barely used outside of creating some ambience.
The weak point is the DVD, which comes light on the features. Let's work backwards on the menu and start with the bevy of trailers: Premonition, The Holiday, Casino Royale, The Pursuit of Happyness, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Marie Antoinette, and Bewitched. Next up are two deleted/extended scenes (11 minutes). These both deal with the fake book review program seen on the television in Professor Hibbert's office. They're cute but don't add anything to the movie itself. Last are the bulk of the bonus items, six featurettes with a total running time of 67 minutes. Each is a quick glimpse at the topic in the title, which pretty much explains what you're about to see: "Actors in Search of a Story" (18.5 minutes), "Building the Team" (8.5 minutes), "On Location in Chicago" (10.5 minutes), "Words on a Page" (9.5 minutes), "Picture a Number: The Evolution of a G.U.I." (17 minutes), and "On the Set" (3 minutes). On the whole, they give you a decent overview of the film and probably would have worked better as one big feature and not six smaller pieces.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only significant drawback to the film is that it drags a bit during the middle act. Running at close to two hours, with Harold finding the Narrator (a.k.a Karen Eiffel) in the last half-hour, speaks to some extra padding along the way. I think a little editing would have lead to a smoother, brisker film.
It didn't make the box office of Ferrell's big comedies, but this movie is clearly better than all of them. With a real character learning and growing, giving us pleasant chuckles along the way, this one is worth watching. It gets a great big rental recommendation and, even though the bonus materials feel half-hearted, I'll give it a buy recommendation too.
Stranger Than Fiction is hereby found not guilty of delusional behavior.
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Scales of Justice
• "Actors in Search of a Story"
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