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Stranger Than Fiction

(2006) ** Pg-13
113 min. Columbia Pictures. Director: Marc Forster. Cast: Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Queen Latifah, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman.

Marc Forster's Stranger Than Fiction has a high concept but little idea of what to do with it. With his original screenplay, newcomer Zach Helm portrays a character/man's relationship with his author/God by twisting the ever-trendy "is life a dream?" theme a few degrees to "is life a fiction?" A more immmediate existential question comes to mind when watching the film: "is the film's trailer more interesting than the film?" Answer: yes.

Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, a milquetoast IRS agent who one day begins hearing an author narrating his life. When he hears that his death is imminent, Harold goes into carpe-diem mode and seeks existential answers, first from literature professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) and then from Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), the author of his life/her novel. As my philosophy teacher used to say: Follow? To complicate matters, Crick is pursuing both an audit and a romance with Ana, a free-spirited baker played by Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Stranger Than Fiction is a fantasy, so it's not obligated to be logical, but it should at least have internal logic and follow its own set of rules. A failure to do so untethers the film. Helm gives nary a hint as to how and why--at this time and place--one of Eiffel's characters exists on the same plane of existence as his author. The Purple Rose of Cairo, about a movie character achieving independence from fiction, at least offers an inciting event with a intimation of spiritual contact between worlds; Helm just throws Eiffel and Crick together.

That accomplished, Helm doesn't allow Eiffel and the other "real" people (excepting a skeptical psychologist played by Tom Hulce) to deal in a realistic fashion with the sudden appearance of a supposedly fictional character. Helm ignores any sensible questions. In addition to Crick, has Eiffel also conjured a bakery, an apartment building, and an alternative IRS out of thin air? Where are these places relative to the "real world"? Is Eiffel living inside her own fictional world? Just what in tarnation is going on here?

Let's assume these questions are just the grumblings of a spoilsport. Obviously viewers are supposed to just shut up and enjoy the movie, but there's yet another problem: the repeated but unproven claim that Eiffel is a great author. Despite talk of her themes of "intercollectivity" and "looming death," Eiffel's genius isn't apparent in the cliched story of a regimented, stuffed shirt who needs loosening-up lessons from a hang-loose earth mother serving cookies and milk. Worse, the "plot" hinges on an "ending" that's supposed to be so brilliant that Eiffel feels pressured not to change a thing, but her climax—which I won't give away—is clearly hackwork.

Furthermore, Eiffel's reality doesn't feel any more real than her fiction. The depressed author gets unwelcome counseling from Queen Latifah as a publishing-company stooge. Do publishers charge employees to go out and squeeze delinquent authors until a diamond emerges? Maybe, but Forster can't make the idea plausible in the telling. Back in fiction-land (?), Harold and Ana's romance remains too skimpy to satisfy.

Helm turns sodden Thompson's usual virtue of wit, so the best scenes are the ones between the deadpan double-act of Ferrell and Hoffman, still crazy after all these years. The literary gags are sometimes amusing ("Dramatic irony. It'll fuck you every time"), but therein Helm begs yet another point of plausibility. Hilbert assigns to Crick the task of figuring out if he's in a comedy or a tragedy, but the answer would be immediately apparent to any literature professor worth his salt (a hint for all you Aristotle fans: is Crick a figure of great stature?).

Forster's apparent promise, from back in the day of Monster's Ball, is sadly unfulfilled. The director demonstrates a film-student's geeky glee in allusion (or shall we say rip-off?), with designs and shots that bring to mind Psycho, Fight Club, and Caché , among others. The biggest allusion of all is the choice of script: Stranger Than Fiction is a cutesy, Charlie Kaufman-lite exercise in magic unrealism.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1

Street date: 12/2/2008

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Sony offers a clean, detailed transfer for Stranger Than Fiction: Special Edition on Blu-ray. It's not as naturalistically film-like as one might hope, with a somewhat contrasty look and at times sketchy flesh tones, but it's still a solid effort that easily trumps its DVD counterpart. Adding significant value is a high-res audio mix, in Dolby TrueHD 5.1, that can only be described as a definitive home presentation.

A commentary with director Marc Forster and stars Will Ferrell and Dustin Hoffman finds the ever-verbose raconteur Hoffman in high spirited good form--whenever the track threatens to wane, he keeps it bubbling with random or brainy interjections.

A second commentary features Forster, production designer Kevin Thompson, visual effects designer Kevin Tod Haug, director of photography Roberto Schaefer, producer Lindsey Doran, executive producer Eric Kopeloff. This one's of the "film school on a disc" variety, with all camps heard from in a roundtable discussion of the film's design and production.

"Actors in Search of a Story" (18:37, SD) works its way through the cast of characters, with comments from Forster, Ferrell, Gyllenhaal, Hoffman, Thompson, Latifah, Tony Hale, Tom Hulce, Linda Hunt, Kopeloff, and Doran. "Building the Team" (8:32, SD) adds director of photography Roberto Schaefer, editor Matt Chesse, production designer Kevin Thompson, visual effects designer Kevin Tod Haug, and graphic artists Jed Carter and Tim Fisher in a discussion of the design teams' contributions.

"Words on a Page" (9:28, SD) allows screenwriter Zack Helm to discuss his inspirations and intentions. "Picture a Number: The Evolution of a G.U.I." (17:13, SD) covers the film's main special effect, seen at various stages of R&D. FX Cartel's Gunnar Hansen and graphic artist Ben Radatz join the discussion.

"On the Set" (3:00, SD) seems to be a reel internally produced for the wrap party, and allowing some of the crew to introduce themselves amid B-roll footage. "On Location in Chicago" (10:29, SD) celebrates the film's location shoot, with Brenda Sexton of the Illinois Film Office cheerleading for the city.

Also here are nine Deleted and Extended Scenes, the first two being in HD (6:57), the next in standard definition video (6:39), five more in HD (13:38), and then a final video clip in SD (5:07). Lastly, you get a handful of Previews, though none is for Stranger Than Fiction.

Fans who haven't yet taken the plunge for this title have no excuse not to pick up this special edition, currently a Blu-ray exclusive.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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