Honestly, before I took up this beat I had no idea how many new movies aren’t that great and aren’t truly terrible but are simply so-so and when it comes to so-so Stranger Than Fiction is just so so-so, which is a shame because: a) I’d been looking forward to it and b) I have better things to do with my time, like buy goats for people for Christmas and then figure out how to wrap them.
I’d been looking forward to it not only because the conceit sounded wonderfully neat (it’s about a guy who hears his life being narrated to him) but also because it’s got Emma Thompson in it. I know there’s a piety to her that gets some people’s backs up, but as an actress she can not only strip herself of all vanity in the most exquisite and extraordinary way (Howard’s End, Remains of the Day, Sense and Sensibility) but can also single-handedly almost save a film. Are you telling me that in Love, Actually she wasn’t the only one who remembered to Act, Actually? But, ultimately, neither the conceit nor Emma are sufficiently deployed to save this film from being yet another familiar rom-com of the kind that could star Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Don’t get me wrong, though. I’d love Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan films if only they weren’t so rubbish and I didn’t have better things to do, like wrap six mango striplings and an eye operation.
In this film, Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, a solitary, miserable shell of an IRS agent who lives a rigidly ordered life: gets up at the same time; counts the strokes as he brushes his teeth; counts his steps to the bus stop; takes the same bus every day ...and then, one morning, he hears a female voice in his head and it’s as if an author is in there narrating his life. I would like to point out here that Ferrell is surprisingly OK. In fact, once you get over the fact that he does look as if he’s had some kind of weird pubic-to-head hair transplant, he’s rather good at doing both vulnerability and soul. I mean, he’s not up there with Bill Murray when it comes to vulnerability and soul, but who is? Still, he certainly doesn’t embarrass himself.
Anyway, where were we? Oh, yes. So there’s this author in his head narrating his life and, it turns out, his imminent death. What to do? He first seeks help from the literary theorist Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) who has quite the best lines: ‘Dramatic irony. It’ll f— you every time.’ And then it’s on to the author herself, Karen Eiffel (Thompson), who is nearing completion of her latest and potentially finest book. Thomson, I’m very sad to Say, Actually, disappoints. She over-plays the depressed and suicidal Karen really quite annoyingly and endlessly chain-smokes without ever inhaling, which is truly offensive to all of us real smokers out there, who can instantly spot when a smoke is a smoke and a smoke is a prop.
And amid all this comes the love story — oh, yes — as Harold embarks on an initially tentative romance with a free-spirited baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays it with lots of irritating ‘spunk’). I think that when you get a free-spirited baker in a movie you know it’s in trouble. I think that when you get a free-spirited baker and a buttoned-up IRS agent, you know it’s not only in trouble, but you’ve seen it all before. Pop! And that’s just the first button pinging off. Tell me, is Harold going to learn to live and love for the very first time? You betcha.
The real trouble with Stranger Than Fiction is that although the idea is clever there just isn’t enough wit or style or verve to pull it off. It takes a great premise and then not only fails to run with it, but also fails to go absolutely anywhere with it at all, or even raise any interesting questions about the nature of fact and fiction, or an artist’s relationship with his or her creation. It’s kind of Adaptation for people who were too stupid for Adaptation. Plus, although it’s a fantasy of sorts, you would expect it to have some kind of internal logic, but it doesn’t. I mean, if a man was living the life an author was writing then the author would be writing a book about a man who could hear the author narrating his life, but let’s not pursue that, as I kind of suspect that way madness lies. One last point, then I promise to shut up: Karen’s book is described as a ‘masterpiece’ but, judging from the narration, it’s well crap.
God, I’ve made this movie sound awful, haven’t I? But it’s not a total stinker. There are some nice moments in it, one to do with cookies and milk that’s truly, madly sweet. It’ll kill two hours on a cold night. And rom-com fans will, I’m sure, lap it all up. It’s just that I expected something so much more, nothing quite as so-so, plus I do have better things to do like Send A Cow, if I can get it into the postbox.