Saturday, March 10, 2007

STRANGER THAN FICTION & Charlie Kaufman's Curse

“Dramatic irony - it’ll fuck you every time.” 

Now out on DVD:

(Dir. Marc Forster, 2006)

When bland by-the-book IRS auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) hears a disconnected voice narrating the mundane moments of his daily routine then foretelling his death, naturally a modern movie-goer would expect a full-out Ferrell freak-out. 

Well, despite some yelling at the Heavens what we get is a questioning rational note-taking far-from-frantic Ferrell. The voice he hears belongs to Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) a frazzled chain-smoking acclaimed author suffering writer’s block on how to kill off her latest main character that she is unaware actually exists. As a prisoner of an enforced narrative Ferrell enlists Literary professor Dr. Jules Hibbert’s (Dustin Hoffman) help. Hibbert breaks it down to purely a question of whether Crick is a character in a comedy or tragedy. 

At its core it’s a wake up and realize that you’re alive movie with Crick coming out of his self-created shell to declare his love for abrasive tattooed bakery shop owner Maggie Gyllenhall, shake off his dull routines, and even take up the guitar while trying to get to the heart of his daunting dilemma. 

Three years after David O. Russell’s I HEART HUCKABEES (that also featured Hoffman) was billed as an “existential comedy,” and accused of ripping off the work of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (see below), STRANGER THAN FICTION pushes the existential envelope and the Kaufmanesque approach a little further. 

It’s not a case of “life imitating art” or vice versa – it’s more like life challenging art to a duel but eventually agreeing to a stalemate. The look of the film is fitting - white-washed bare backgrounds of Ferrell’s sterile hotel room-looking apartment and his fluorescent lit workplace with cubicles and filing cabinets reaching back to infinity are contrasted with the clutter of Gyllenhall’s punk bakery and Hoffman’s wood-grain ragged book-filled university office. 

Spoon songs fill the soundtrack with the welcome exception of Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World,” which Ferrell woos Gyllenhall with as the first song he learns on the guitar. 

The supporting cast is spot-on as well – Queen Latifah as Thompson’s assistant, Tony Hale (Arrested Development - TV-series 2003-2006), Linda Hunt, and an almost unrecognizable Tom Hulce (AMADEUS, ANIMAL HOUSE, PARENTHOOD) as Ferrell’s chubby bearded touchy-feely office counselor. STRANGER THAN FICTION is a fine film but one that never really gets airborne. 

It’s highly likable even as it lumbers in a state of subdued surrealism but maybe, just maybe it should have freaked out a bit.

KAUFMAN’S CURSE: Nearly every review of STRANGER THAN FICTION calls attention to the influence of writer, producer, and soon to be director Charlie Kaufman who apparently is widely acknowledged as modern cinema’s reigning meta-movie master for his films BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION, and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND
One particular phrase really stands out : “Charlie Kaufman Lite” – Richard Corliss (TIME Magazine) 

“Zach Helm's Kaufman Lite script...” - Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) “A cutesy, Charlie Kaufman-lite exercise in magic unrealism.” - Peter Canavese (GROUCHO Reviews) 

“Charlie Kaufman-lite but enjoyable nevertheless” – Bina007 Movie Reviews Also in the same vein : “a charming though problematic meta-movie in Charlie Kaufman mode” – Scott Tobias (Onion AV Club) 

“Zach Helm's screenplay has flagrant Charlie Kaufman ("Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation") overtones rocketing out of it that are impossible to ignore.” – Brian Ordoff ( 

“Owes a considerable debt to the dual-reality-plane excursions of Charlie Kaufman” - Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune)

“Finally, a Charlie Kaufman movie for people who are too stupid to understand Charlie Kaufman movies.” - Sean Burns (Philadelphia Weekly) Congratulations Charlie Kaufman! You are now officially critical short-hand.

More later...


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