December 9, 2006

"Stranger than Fiction"

Will Ferrell plays a boring IRS auditor who does everything by clockwork, always taking the 8:17 bus every morning to work, never showing any emotion or thinking about anything besides his dull job.

One day, he notices a well-spoken lady's voice in his head narrating what he's doing. When she (Emma Thompson, playing a prestigious author of literary fiction who has been trying to write her novel "Death and Taxes" for a decade) announces that he's unaware of his impending death, he goes to see a professor of literature (Dustin Hoffman), who has no problem accepting that his visitor is a character in somebody else's story. Eventually, with Hoffman's help, Ferrell tracks down Thompson, who admits she's about to kill him off in her ending.

In the only funny scene, Ferrell gives Thompson's unfinished manuscript to Hoffman who reads it and enthusiastically tells him that it's a masterpiece, and that any other ending would ruin it, so he'll just have to die for the good of literature.

One obvious challenge in any story where a character is supposed to be a literary genius is, as Nabokov argued, that the author must present persuasive evidence that the genius really is a genius. This is hard to do when the actual author isn't a genius, which, unfortunately, hot young screenwriter Zach "The-New-Charlie-Kaufman" Helm most evidently is not. The prose style of the lengthy narration from the novel by Thompson is deeply mediocre, and the plotting is singularly lacking in invention.

For instance, Thompson struggles throughout the film to come up with an inspired way to kill off poor Ferrell. Eventually, she achieves a breakthrough, which turns out to be that Ferrell will be ... hit by a bus. Hit by a bus? That's the most hackneyed form of death in the English language at present. Google lists 365,000 examples of "hit by a bus." In one of them, a reader asks, "Why do managers always say something like 'In case you get hit by a bus, I want to make sure you and Fred are inter-changeable'?"

Second, the movie, directed by Marc Forster, the man behind such mediocrities as "Monster's Ball" and "Finding Neverland," is intentionally lifeless. It was filmed in Chicago, a great-looking town with many idiosyncratic landmarks, but the settings were so generic and lacking in local color I thought it was another one of those productions where Toronto is supposed to stand in for Chicago to save on the exchange rate.

This was a "creative" decision on the part of the filmmakers to emphasize how boring and uncreative Ferrell's IRS agent is. But the film just ends up looking phony. For example, there is no "8:17 bus" in Chicago. You simply go down to the corner and wait. Some days, depending on the vagaries of the weather, traffic, and politics, three buses show up one right after another, and other days, no bus comes until 8:45, and then it's full. In the real Chicago, stuff happens.

Third, the movie is redolent of the smug contempt that people with creative jobs have for people with non-creative jobs, whom the creative types imagine must be automatons.

"Stranger than Fiction" isn't an awful movie, but Zach Helm sure isn't Charlie Kaufman.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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