23 December 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

The conceit of this movie is fantastic - the main character comes to realize that he's a character in a novel when he starts hearing the voice of a narrator in his head. The film follows the travails of aforementioned character, but also pulls back to the author, creating one of those delightfully dizzying blends of fiction and reality but yet it's all happening in a movie meta-things that lit dorks like me go nuts over. The problem, however, is that the makers had the brilliance to come up with the idea, but not enough to really do it justice.

The main problem is that the novel being written, the story of Will Ferrell, is boring. It is possible that this is intentional; that Emma Thompson's character, the author, is just a bad writer, which would be a very clever idea, but then why is there a university professor designing courses around her works? Is that a subtle jab at the study of literature? Is that why the literature professor's comments, while often funny, are totally inane? Why is she a bestseller? Why does Will Ferrell see the ending as brilliant, when it's so banal and cliche that it makes you want to tear your hair out?

If this is intentional, it's brilliant. Because the Will Ferrell story is, to me, textbook bad writing. It's tendentious, trite, inconsistent, and generally irritating. Except for the moments where he becomes aware of the narrator's voice, which are hilarious, clever, and very well done. The movie is interesting and entertaining when it focuses on its characters - the dialogue is generally phenomenal, and the acting is fantastic - but the machinations of the plot are so crude and bumbling that its painful. This would be highly appropriate to a movie that claims that characters in novels are real people - bad plots happen to good people too. Sometimes there are characters that seem somewhat interesting (Queen Latifah) despite the fact that their presence in the work seems mostly unnecessary and you barely even get to know them. Which brings up the interesting issue of how it is possible for a character to be so badly written as to be largely pointless and flat and yet still convincingly human and appealing enough that you wish you'd been able to get to know them?

But I'm not convinced that the movie really is that brilliant. I suspect that it didn't actually intend to blow my mind by making Emma Thompson's character a bad writer. I mean, I think it can't entirely be the character's fault, because there's a major whole in the plot that seems to be outside her purview, namely, her surprise at discovering that her character knows about her, which would seem to be impossible if she's narrating his life. Also, I suspect that if that were the film's intent, it would be made more clear. I also suspect that if the movie were that cerebral, it wouldn't have such big name stars in it.

Also, I couldn't help but be supremely irritated by the fact that the movie attempted to pretend that it was set in New York, when it was obviously filmed in Chicago. Especially given that Dustin Hoffman, the lit professor, explicitly makes a point of asking whether the novel's author
is familiar with the city. Incidentally, I think it would have been a nice touch to explore the way that cities are portrayed in literature, to narrate a literary description with a visual counterpart, thus blending ekphrasis and film in particularly tantalizing ways, but maybe I'm the only one who would really get a kick out of that.

All in all, a highly amusing and interesting film. Too bad it's not better. It had a golden opportunity to be an absolutely dazzling intellectual adventure, but it ended up being a watered down, yet somewhat enjoyable, flick. I suspect that it will end up largely forgotten, despite having a ridiculously star-studded cast.

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