Thursday, November 16, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction: Will Farrell Turns a Page

Reviewed by Graham H. Moes
Graybrook Institute Film Critic

Ranking: 4 out of 5 stars

Apparently, there comes a time in every top comedian’s career when he feels the need to tempt fate and skate off onto the thin ice of “serious comedy.” Think Robin Williams circa Good Morning, Vietnam, or Jim Carey along about The Truman Show. Stranger Than Fiction marks that point for Will Ferrell. Turns out, the guy can skate.

Ferrell plays Harold Crick, a drab IRS numbers-cruncher who discovers he’s a character in someone’s in-progress novel. To make matters worse, the author (Crick can hear her narration at odd and inconvenient times) is suffering from serious writer’s block — mostly over how best to kill him off in the end.

If “a person with a problem” is the essence of every movie premise, Harold has the Citizen Kane of dilemmas — to find out who this author is and convince her not to off him, despite the fact he’s shaping up to be the author’s crowning achievement as a writer.

As Harold sets out to discover, first and foremost, whether his life is a comedy or a drama, we realize this is deeper stuff for Farrell, who offers the first truly restrained performance of his career — no small feat for the reigning king of cinema improv, whose movies are often built as much around his ad-libs as the script itself. Is it funny? Absolutely, but here the humor is understated, found in Harold’s quiet desperation on his metaphoric quest for the meaning of life and a life well-lived.

Whether or not those who loved the obvious and asinine Talladega Nights will appreciate Ferrell’s dry turn here remains to be seen, but director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland) and screenwriter Zack Helm have managed to create that rarest of birds — an indy-style film with mainstream appeal.

Forster did the same thing with Neverland, exploring some of the same issues en route to a grip of Oscar nominations. It’s an indication of how good he and Helm’s richly textured script is that we’re able to buy Will Ferrell as a Christ figure. (Say what now?)

The film should also become a film school staple for discussion — maybe even an adult Sunday school discussion: At what point does Harold begin to exist? Why make the author’s home as empty and sterile as Harold’s while the professor of literature’s is a mass of color and clutter? Is Harold a Christ figure at all, or just an everyman in a universal Christologic framework?

When last I wrote about Will Ferrell, Talladega landed dead last on my Ferrell Films Rankings, far south of Bewitched, Kicking and Screaming, Elf and — cue the golden trumpets — Anchorman (Sorry, Borat. Clearly a better candidate for funniest film ever.)

Stranger Than Fiction doesn’t make that list at all, but it’s at the top of a new one I’ll be keeping for Ferrell. Because — as Harold Crick discovers — sometimes with life, and a good book, all you have to do is turn the page.


The preceding review was written for publication in the Clovis Independent on Nov. 17, 2007.

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