Saw Stranger Than Fiction last night and was amazed by how much I liked it. I am not a Will Ferrell fan, though I've liked most everything I've seen Emma Thompson in. It seemed an odd pairing and the previews looked too cute for words.
Too cute by half, since the previews make the film look like a straight comedy, which it is and isn't. It isn't in the sense of rolling on the laughing, but it is in the classical sense, and I leave it to you to figure out what I mean.
Also in the cast is Maggie Gyllenhaal, and she's casually delightful as always. And surprise, Queen Latifah is perfect in a minor but nonetheless key role. I should probably also mention Dustin Hoffman, but why? He's little more than "okay".
The plot is simple: Ferrell is an IRS agent who begins hearing Thompson's voice as it narrates his life, in all its dull, repetitive details. At first he thinks he's going crazy, but becomes panic stricken when the narration casually announces he will soon die. The twist is when we discover that Thompson is a well-known author suffering writer's block. The narration that Ferrell hears is her writing, and his death is necessary for the conclusion of her latest novel.
The previews make it look like this is just another over-the-top Ferrell comedy, but it isn't. He is visibly restrained, as an IRS agent should be. It's a somber and sobering performance because the Thompson's narration begins to make him examine his closed and hollow world. It also compels him into a relationship with Gyllenhaal.
This isn't a perfect film. While gently done for the most part, it is often far from subtle. And while we're told that the novel that Thompson is writing, the end of Ferrell's life, is possibly the finest work of her career, we get no hint as to why that it so. Hoffman just declares it and we move on. Little disappointments like this are speckled throughout the film.
Nonetheless, is a touching little film. I'm amazed at how good Ferrell can be when he's not just running about and shouting. Thompson's performance of a neurotic, withdrawn writer is perfect. And Gyllenhaal's free spirt, while a bit of a stereotype, is still nicely rendered. It all comes together with a touching conclusion that says a great deal about living and writing, that both are subject to revision and rewrites, and there's little or nothing that we should take for granted.
All in all, a good film with a hint that it could have been great.