Write On

Breathless comic Will Ferrell plays it mostly straight in Marc Forster’s enchanting modern-day fable Stranger Than Fiction, a brilliantly realised story of an ordinary man caught up in an inexplicable fantasy. Ferrell plays Harold Crick, a quiet, isolated US government tax inspector who wakes up one morning hearing a mysterious voice in his head. The female voice, clipped and plummy, isn’t talking to him, it’s talking about him, describing his mundane actions and predictable moods in a precise narration, like a voice over in a movie. Harold, who shows worrying signs of obsessive compulsion, an odd world-view beautifully explained by the director with on-screen graphics showing Harold’s continuously compiled internal calculations, is naturally perturbed at the intrusion, especially when the voice tells him, in a matter of fact way, that he is about to die.

Just at the point where Harold believes himself to be going mad, he seeks advice from a psychiatrist, (played with a squint of suspicion by Linda Hunt), who listens patiently to his ravings and refers him on to a professor of literature, Dr Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), a man as spontaneous and emotional and strung out on caffeine as Harold is ordered and subdued. Hilbert also listens, while slurping constantly from his coffee mug, explaining to Harold that whatever story he believes himself to be a part of can only be resolved through one of a number of standard literary archetypes. Patient questioning comes up with a handul of names of authors who could be transcribing his life, eventually leading the duo to one writer, Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), simply because all of her published novels end in the death of the main character.

It’s a good deduction, Eiffel is indeed the writer, a fact confirmed when Harold hears her speaking on an old television show, but she has problems of her own. She hasn’t published anything in a decade, and is terminally blocked, writing and rewriting the last couple of chapters of Harold’s life without being able to find a way to conclude her story satisfactorily. To that end, her publishers have sent her an assistant (played with restraint by Queen Latifah), a no-nonsense woman who quickly takes the neurotic, chain-smoking, suicidal author in hand and attaches her to a routine. Meanwhile, something extraordinary has happened to Harold. His apartment has been destroyed in an accident, forcing him to move in with his only friend Dave (played by Tony Hale from Arrested Development). While dealing with this spur of disorder, he goes to meet a woman who has misfiled her tax return, and falls in love with her. Ana, a free-spirited, heavily tattooed baker (played with a heartbreaking sincerity by Maggie Gyllenhaal) initially despises this government enforcer, rifling through her papers in an effort to prosecute her, but gradually softens, until a point where the two stand before one another, mutually smitten, and suddenly alive again. But the voice is telling Harold his time is running out, with his life being taken from him just at the point where it has become worth living.

Zach Helm’s script, his debut, appears at first to follow the trendy, labyrinthine path of Charlie Kaufmann, but the film most closely matches The Truman Show in uncovering the individual decisions that these characters make in order to fulfil a destiny they are secretly terrified of. Director Marc Foster tells the story beautifully and intelligently, adopting a low-key mood and having his talented cast unquestioningly accept the magic that has come into their lives. Crucially, he never attempts to explain it all, adding immeasurably to the satisfaction, even as his characters arrange a compromise ending to the story we are watching. The acting performances are flawless, funny and touching and deliberate. The picture looks terrific, and boasts an outstanding, delicately used soundtrack.


darkman said...

Will Ferrels in danger of becoming the new Adam Sandler,hes been in so much shite.Maybe this will mark a change.

Simon said...

ya have to say an excellent film went to see it tonight. Well worth the money