Spending some time getting to know my couch over the long weekend, I had the opportunity to see a few good films that had otherwise escaped my notice.
The best was probably ‘Stranger Than Fiction’.
“Everybody knows that your life is a story. But what if a story was your life? Harold Crick is your average IRS agent: monotonous, boring, and repetitive. But one day this all changes when Harold begins to hear an author inside his head narrating his life. The narrator it is extraordinarily accurate, and Harold recognizes the voice as an esteemed author he saw on TV. But when the narration reveals that he is going to die, Harold must find the author of the story, and ultimately his life, to convince her to change the ending of the story before it is too late.”
This is a film that reminded me of a story by Borges – not any particular story, I should say, but a kind of narrative about narrative, disguised as something else entirely.
It has predictably been called ‘Charlie Kaufman lite’. This is both a slight on Charlie Kaufman and on the film’s scriptwriter, Zach Helm. This is his first feature, and on this evidence I look forward to his next which he also directed. The script’s refreshing sense of freedom with space and time is reminiscent of Kaufman, but it doesn’t have his caustic quality; it goes for sentiment more often than not. This is not a criticism, as sentiment has a place in every story; what’s happily lacking here is mawkishness.
It occurs to me that it is the second film which owes its genesis to Robert McKee’s book “Story”, being in many clever and interesting ways, essentially about the hold that stories have over us. The other one is Charlie Kaufman’s ‘Adaptation’, where the book almost becomes a character all on its own (as does Robert McKee himself).
I should say though, that this is an example of a writer and a director at variance with each other about what the film should be, and probably what it means.
Director Marc Forster has gone for a slightly slick visual stylization, which often dilutes the film’s emotional strengths, leaving it ungrounded, not located in the real world of partitioned offices and coffee breaks. It threatens to become the film that Jim Carey (in comedy mode) never made, which is a mistake.
The visual style often threatens to overwhelm the content, especially early on when borderline obsessive-compulsive Ferrell begins to go about his day, counting toothbrush strokes and steps to the bus stop. He didn’t need to work in an office that looked Joseph K’s in Orson Welles’ ‘The Trial’ for us to get that he works in a grey, featureless world without prospects of emotional release. And did all the staff literally have to wear grey – so that when Will Ferrell comes to work in a red sweater he looks like an anarchist?
When Ferrell counts his steps and does elaborate calculations on the spot, figures appear over his head, graphics elaborate themselves across the screen, appear backwards and flip around when he passes from one side of the screen to the other. At first this appears witty, and I suppose it is in a self-conscious way, but it begins to look like a commercial for insurance. I’m glad that it only appears at the beginning of the film. For no apparent reason, it ceases to happen after the first ten minutes. The viewer asks what did it mean? And that’s the trouble. It is simply a cosmetic smear; a device that distances us from the drama. As the action begins to accumulate some emotional stake for the audience, it disappears. Someone should have told Forster to lose the idea.
Emma Thompson’s performance is beautifully judged, and near-perfect. Intense, but never giving in to the temptation to go for comedic caricature. She leaves the humanity of her character’s predicament intact, no matter how attenuated the concept. The expression on her face when she stands on a precipice above the city streets, taking in the delicious possibility of death, eyes closed with hands extended to feel the rising warm air from the street. It makes sense that such a sensualist should embrace life and not give in to the temptation. She says it’s “research”, but we don’t doubt that a few more degrees of disenchantment with life might see her confronting the temptation for real.
It was the sort of performance which reminded me of Toni Collette, especially in ‘About A Boy’, where she’s supposed to be the main character’s comically eccentric and unbalanced mother, but she’s so convincing she threatens to upset the whole trajectory of the film.
Watching the ‘Making Of’ feature on the DVD, I was struck by how perfectly uninteresting a person Marc Forster seemed to be. I apologise to his mother if she ever reads this, but during the interminable interviews with cast and crew, he fails to say anything that sheds the least bit of light on his creative motivations. There’s not a joke to be made, not an observation even the laziest couch potato couldn’t have made for him. The fact that the crew spend a lot of time telling how “great he was to work with” makes it worse.
If there’s one aspect of the screenplay which might betray Zach Helm’s lack of experience, it’s the matter of the wristwatch. The film begins with Emma Thompason’s author intoning “This is a story about a man named Harold Crick and his wristwatch”. I get the feeling that the wristwatch might have featured prominently in the original pitch. In the film however, having established itself it quickly gets in the way, so that when the narrator feels compelled to keep referring to it for no necessary reason, it becomes confusing and then irritating. Somebody should have told him to leave it in the second draft.
The cast are uniformly good; all of them showy by temperament but with their usual intensity turned right down, including Will Ferrell, Dustin Hoffman and Queen Latifah.
Kay Eiffel: I went out... to buy cigarettes and I figured out how to kill Harold Crick.
Penny Escher: Buying cigarettes?
Kay Eiffel: As I was... when I came out of the store I... it came to me.
Penny Escher: How?
Kay Eiffel: Well, Penny, like anything worth writing, it came inexplicably and without method.