During his middle school days, Judge Dennis Prince was troubled by the strange omniscient voice that somehow spoke to his inner anxieties. Turns out it was the Vice Principal speaking over the intercom during Homeroom class—yet how did he always know Dennis had again forgotten his P.E. clothes?
"Okay, Mr. Crick—I can't help you."
In a politely quiet manner, Stranger Than Fiction dutifully projected its tale on theater screens commencing on November 12, 2006. Knowing it would be appearing just prior to the annual holiday box office blitz, the film showed itself into auditoriums, conducted is business, and then left as demurely as it had come. It didn't demand too much attention, yet was effective as an investment that paid more in receipts than it had cost in preparation. It was successful, yes; though it wasn't the talk of the town by any means.
For this particular film, that was just fine, maybe even preferable. But, frankly, the film was more poignant than it had led on, practically challenging movie patrons to detect it and delve into its multi-layered significance. To some, it was just another drama of some innocuous sort. To others, it was wrongly pre-determined as a knee-slapping Will Farrell movie—you know, that big funny elf. Those who bothered to investigate the production, even in the slightest, would be the true beneficiaries of an emotive and compelling drama that gives a clown his chance to be taken seriously and an accomplished director another opportunity to wake viewers from the daily sleepwalk they presume to call Life.
And, truth be told, as I'm writing these words, I'm hearing them spoken aloud in my head in a woman's voice, British accented. Should I see someone about it?
Facts of the Case
Harold Crick (Will Farrell, Kicking and Screaming) is about as mild-mannered as they come, even in modern day Chicago where such terminology is apt only to be found on a round of Jeopardy!. As a buttoned-down IRS Auditor, Harold lives his life in precision, fastidiously anticipated and accurately metered. His mind whirs like a spreadsheet, complete with supporting documentation links and embedded mathematical macros all within a synapse's reach. But one Wednesday, Harold begin to hear a voice that narrates his every move, motivation, and methodical next step. As he counts the strokes of his morning toothbrush, he spins on his heels and calls out to whomever is chronicling his actions. No response. He goes about his day, understandably distracted and even annoyed, stepping into the bakery where young Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Riding in Cars with Boys) is scheduled to be audited for underpaying her Federal taxes. She derides him and his profession; Harold patiently withstands her taunts. The voice returns to his head, practically cajoling him to ogle the petulant but pretty young pastry girl. Harold quickly excuses himself, first seeking assistance from a pill-pushing psychiatrist, later to beg the help of noted literary professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman, Finding Neverland). Hilbert is intrigued by Harold's insistence that someone is narrating his life, but appears more anxious to deduce who the author might be that he is interested in providing psychological assurance to the beleaguered man. Elsewhere, though, author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) is struggling with a debilitating bout of writer's block, unable to find a way to complete her latest tragic novel, Death and Taxes, and unwilling to accept the patented breakthrough methods offered by publishing assistant Penny Escher (Queen Latifah, Beauty Shop). Although she dutifully types page after page of her novel, Eiffel is still unable to conjure up a suitable demise for her latest main character—a fastidious man named Harold Crick.
Now for a moment of honesty: have you ever wondered if, or perhaps simply imagined that, someone might be narrating your life as you faintly hear a voice that would comment on what it was you just did and what it was that will occur as a result of your actions? I have. At many times throughout my life, I've wondered if I was but an "actor" on Shakespeare's purported "world's stage," performing a role that I didn't always feel in complete control over and, therefore, playfully—sometimes even anxiously—wondering how it might turn out in the end. While this notion never managed to render me despondent in any sort of psychological paralysis, I was nonetheless intrigued by what someone else might say about my actions, or how they might have an effect on my next movements, statements, or personal thoughts. Nutty, huh?
Believing that many of us have toyed with a similar idea—not exactly to The Truman Show extreme—it makes for compelling storytelling and, to that end, makes Stranger Than Fiction more intriguing than other straight-ahead dramas or romances. Although screenwriter Zach Helm's script is somewhat derivative, it's an interesting "narrative" that translates exceedingly well to the screen. Of course, the film succeeds in its intent largely due to the competent direction of the insightful Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland). His approach to the material is deliberate but never heavy-handed, and his ability to coax out the proper tone from his actors is admirable. To that point, the acting on display here is certainly top notch. Unexpectedly, Will Farrell is downright mesmerizing in his performance, giving a hint that he might do something completely silly at any moment (suffering a sort of typecast expectation due to his usual work), yet maintaining a nervous restraint that precisely matches the conundrum of Harold Crick. From this performance alone, I'm eager to see Farrell do more of the same, hopefully soon. Of course Dustin Hoffman is spot on as a borderline insufferable intellectual, concerned with his own analytical abilities at the expense of Harold's dilemma. Hoffman delivers his performance in the expertly controlled manner we've come to expect, playfully looking as if he's just wrapped up a repeat appearance on Inside the Actor's Studio, not yet finished with his lecture to the young hopefuls in tow. Emma Thompson is perfect as Kay Eiffel, looking so terribly distraught over her insurmountable writer's block that you expect her to actually leap from the ledge of a high rise to quickly—and dramatically, mind you—end her pain. Queen Latifah is likewise refreshing, playing the perfect oil to Thompson's vinegar—never quite mixing, yet able to deliver a combined flavor that works well here. Lastly, Maggie Gyllenhaal is pitch-perfect as Ana, the rebellious baker who teeters on the fine line between young adult irreverence and grown woman maturity. To look at her opposite Harold at first exclaims absolute impossibility of any personal connection, yet her ability to traverse the arc and ultimately find passion in the lonely IRS Auditor comes off as completely believable.
Another Blu-ray exclusive release from Sony's Columbia Pictures, Stranger Than Fiction arrives in a well-mastered high-definition transfer. The source print is perfect, as would be expected from a current production. The transfer, though, mastered via a 1080p / MPEG-2 encoding, is spectacular. That is, it presents an excellently detailed quality that reveals every nuance of the in-screen elements. Facial textures are deep and lifelike, clothing and other fabric surfaces look remarkably real, and exterior elements are so well rendered that you'd expect you could smell the crisp Chicago air. Colors are very smooth, though they are a bit muted—not because of an indifferent encoding effort but, rather, faithfully reproducing the original intent of the film's production design. The film makes very little use of dark sequences, therefore it never has much opportunity to boast black level prowess. The few darkened settings, however, are competently managed with suitable levels of shadow detail. Although you might not expect a drama of this sort to be very impressive in a high-definition mastering, the fact is that it's one of the better-looking titles released on Blu-ray to date.
The audio comes by way of a PCM 5.1 Uncompressed Surround mix, sporting a higher bandwidth of aural data and being much more deliberate in its recreation of Harold Crick's world. Given this film isn't heavy on action sequences, don't expect the usual rocket ride found on other more explosive titles. You can expect a well-managed soundstage that utilizes all channels in an appropriately discreet and discrete manner. The dialog is clear and intelligible at all times and is well punctuated by reasonable directional effects when required. The playful score from composers Britt Daniel and Brian Reitzel is given proper presence amid the activity.
In the extras department, this disc likewise performs dutifully, even admirably. Available on this high definition release is the same generous collection of features that grace the standard definition DVD. Therefore, you'll be pleased to find there is no sacrifice required when selecting the Blu-ray issue. Five featurettes provide various looks at the production, the actors, the story, and some of the visual effects. End to end, they comprise nearly 68 minutes of genuinely interesting material that isn't fluffy of overly self-congratulatory. Beyond these featurettes, there are also two additional scenes, billed as "deleted/extended" in nature. The first is the complete mock television interview with Kay Eiffel, presented in its entirety here. The other is a similar author interview not used in the film, which features FX Designer Kevin Tod Haug as the fictitious writer Peter Alan Prothero. Curiously, while there's quite a collection of Blu-ray previews on the disc, the actual theatrical trailer for Stranger Than Fiction is not among them.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you're concerned that Stranger Than Fiction might be too reminiscent of The Truman Show or Being John Malkovich, relax. The narrative works in a genuinely fresh fashion despite the fact it travels in the same literary circles as the mentioned films. The key attractions here is Farrell's performance, nuanced and nurtured along in remarkably adept style—it's worth the purchase price. Really, don't miss this one, even if you're more inclined to the Farrell of Elf and Talladega Nights fame.
Stranger Than Fiction is a worthwhile journey that, I say with confidence, may have you listening for voices directing you and your life. Listen carefully.
Somewhere in my head I'm hearing "not guilty," and I'd have to agree.
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Scales of Justice
• Featurette: Actors in Search of a Story
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