In contrast to my review of Pan’s Labyrinth, I’m happy to report that I had high expectations for Stranger than Fiction, and the movie exceeded them.
One of the reasons I like comic books is their tendency for metafiction — probably because of the self-mythologizing of writers, artists, and editors epitomized by Stan Lee (see the current series of “Stan Lee meets” issues) — and DC in particular has been courting metafictional relationships as the basis of its universe(s). So I’ve been excited about Stranger than Fiction ever since I first saw the trailer. Unlike Grant Morrison’s pessimistic preaching at the conclusion of his run on Animal Man, however, Zach Helm’s script almost supernaturally reconciles predestination and free will through his character’s humility and heroism.
I didn’t even recognize Tom Hulce beneath his beard and it is good to see Buster Bluth get work, but the only disappointment was Emma Thompson’s overacting, too often mugging for the camera like Hugh Grant. Maggie Gyllenhaal also annoyed me, but since I’m not sure if it’s just her slouchy shoulders and droopy nostrils that irritate me or also her acting, I’ll reserve judgment. Like Sydney (The Matrix, Superman Returns), Chicago seems a favorite choice for anonymous cities (Batman Begins) and is used here to make the story of Harold Crick applicable to us in general rather than specific and historical.
As all stories about authors and their characters are, it is inevitably theological, and I think it is superior to both Jim Carrey’s less-comedic turn in The Truman Show and his more slapstick return to the territory in Bruce Almighty. And in a year filled with Christian typology if not allegory (Superman Returns, Children of Men), Stranger than Fiction is in many ways the shrewdest. (However, I still regard Children of Men as the best movie of the year, and one of the best Christmas movies of all time.)
Quite apart from its theological interest, Stranger also captures the metaphysical aspects of the creative writing and editing process that elude systematization, especially the successive stages of incarnating a story from thought to paper, and in increasing stable forms from script to type. Admittedly I have a masters in editorial theory so the questions of authorial intent, in particular the relative authority of versions of a text, might have been disproportionately interesting to me, but the moment when Emma Thompson types “The phone rang a third time” but pauses before striking the period key was simply climactic in its suspense and fulfillment.
The film begins, perhaps unexpectedly, like Fight Club, illustrating the tedium of a cubical drone’s daily life with superimposed graphics, but soon reveals more similarities to Ferrell’s original attempt at a more serious role, Melinda and Melinda, likewise a metafictional exploration of the differences between comedy and tragedy. But while Woody Allen’s film was a merely academic exercise lacking any heart, Stranger than Fiction makes a high-concept, self-conscious premise seem real and personal.
Will Farrell is a revelation as Harold Crick, and I think he will succeed where Carrey failed due to the latter’s seeming inability not to overact (Eternal Sunshine alone excepted), because Ferrell has an everyman’s face and can be subdued. I was never a fan of Ferrel’s SNL antics (honestly, Dog Show?), which usually amounted to shouting-equals-funny, though Anchorman finally forced me to admit he could make me laugh. (Speaking of Anchorman, there was only one time in Stranger when I could picture him saying, “I’m totally unprepared.”) Even so, I would never have imagined Ferrell as a sympathetic character, but during the final act of Stranger I started crying three times, each for different reasons. His “garden of Gethsemane” scene affected me more than pious depictions of Christ sweating blood. Along with Children of Men, these two movies have probably done more to capture for me the experience of Christ’s birth and passion than any historical recreation. In radically different ways, they each use the mundane to achieve moments of absolute transcendence.
And for the record, the ending completely surprised me, but I soon realized it was perfect if not inevitable, as it transformed the film’s explicit ambivalence between tragedy and comedy into wholehearted affirmation of both.