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Stranger than Fiction

Stranger than Fiction begins, for only one good reason that I can think of and like too many films lately, with the impossible zoom: from Appollo’s eyes as he peers across the earth’s atmosphere the camera begins, then in ten seconds zooms to Manhattan, through a half dozen buildings, and into Will Ferrell’s mouth, the teeth of which he is brushing. The zoom seems to be intended to model the perspective of the omniscient narrator, played by Emma Thompson, of the novel in which Ferrell is a character—a fact he discovers, the moment the camera is in his mouth, because he can hear Thompson’s narration. Problem is, Thompson’s omniscient narrator isn’t a constructor of worlds and doesn’t care to see the stars. She is, instead, a narrator of verisimilitude; her plotting is limited to the scope of a single man’s life and the details of contemporaneity. And that’s only the first indication that the movie doesn’t have a good sense of what storytelling is about, or of what makes for compelling fiction.

So it is that Will Ferrell is trapped in a novel. Unfortunately, in spite of the fact that Thompson the actor can do no wrong, Thompson the “novelist,” writes books that no one would ever read. She kills her protagonists, not like Shakespeare killed Hamlet, with a keen sense of dramatic justice, but senselessly. Ferrell is trapped not simply in a novel, but in a bad one.

But Thompson has writer’s block. She can’t figure out the best way to kill her character. With her assistant Queen Latifah she stalks hospital emergency rooms and dreams of car accidents, seeking new forms of death. Meanwhile, via that useful, obvious device foreshadowing, she informs Ferrell of his fate. As any good character who is told of the machinations surrounding him, for help he turns to a literary critic, played by Dustin Hoffman. At the same time, he falls in love with the adorable Maggie Gyllenhaal. (How adorable is Maggie Gyllenhaal, you ask? On a scale of baby pandas to bunny rabbits, she’s very close to baby pandas. It is good that she and her brother are siblings and there are significant taboos against incest: if they were not, and if they happened to meet and conceive a child, that child would surely suck all cuteness from the earth.) His own dreary life turns colorful. Simultaneously, he discovers who his narrator is and she discovers how to kill him well. They meet, and she gives him the manuscript to read, including the notes about his death. (He can’t die until the last period is typed onto the manuscript’s last page, naturally.) Finally, because it’s a conventional plot, Ferrell, enamored of his novelistic life and titillated by his impending death, decides fate isn’t so bad; meanwhile Thompson, appalled that her plotting affects real people, decides artistic perfection isn’t so great after all. Ferrell and Gyllenhaal escape art’s clutches to live happily ever after.

It’s not a great movie by any means, but it is pleasant—worth seeing once. It has a really muddled, cynical sense of the value of fiction and the necessity of art, which comes across as false because it treats the camera—another form of storytelling—transparently. Hoffman’s career, for example, is a mountain of minutiae (he wrote a book about the phrase, “little did he know,” surely an academic title no respectable press would publish). For some reason Thompson is famous for doing nothing but killing her characters in bizarre ways. For the film the novelist as a character is shallow. She is an eccentric recluse of the order of Pynchon, yet she is at the end a big softy. And Ferrell, who doesn’t read, nonetheless recognizes some kind of humanistic value in his own story when he reads the manuscript (a fact that incidentally further diminishes Hoffman, who’s not only no help to him, but also unnecessary since Ferrell understands without criticism). But the movie draws neither interpreter, nor narrator, nor interpreted together into any kind of fuller understanding about storytelling. It only concludes with the admission that sometimes it’s okay to sacrifice the story.

 

Comments

Spot on review, HG. I enjoyed the movie, but it didn’t deliver on the self-referential promise of its title. And Maggie Gyllenhaal was wonderful.

Gyllenhaal was is hot, you forgot to add.

Smokin’ hot. As they say.

Whoever ‘they’ are.

“They” is anyway not you, unfortunately. But you are both correct about Maggie Gyllenhaal anyway.