I've never lived to be a contrarian, and so it's with no pleasure at all that I find myself down on a movie that has enamored may others.
Good Will Hunting was like that for me. It wasn't even that I hated the movie - it was just that, among other things, I didn't find Matt Damon's character a tenth as sympathetic as everyone else did, and therefore was not swept away.
Allies of Stranger Than Fiction will be happy to know that everyone I've talked to so far not only liked the movie, they loved the movie. And there is a lot to enjoy, from charming performances by Will Ferrell and Maggie Gyllenhaal to an ending that resonates sweetly as you walk out of the theater. There are also some laugh-out loud moments, including one of the best lines I've heard all year in the theater.
But for those who have seen the movie ...
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
... here are the problems I had.
The overriding problem with the film is that it doesn't work on the dual levels it has created: the world inside Karen Eiffel's book and the world outside it.
Picture Lori Singer in Footloose, straddling those two trucks as they race down the highway with an oncoming vehicle fast approaching. Now picture her not getting out of the way in time ... and ending up flat on the asphalt, but with all her makeup in place. That's Stranger Than Fiction.
In the world outside the book, Karen (Emma Thompson) is a writer struggling with writing. And that, for the most part, is meant to explain all the story and character gaps in the world inside the novel - the world of Harold Crick (Ferrell).
For most of the movie, we're stuck in that decidedly flawed world. We're stuck with the character of Harold, who has no depth beyond what the hearing of the voice brings to him. The protagonist is a stereotype when the movie begins - a nerdy IRS agent. And no matter what's going on with Karen, that is a boring character.
In the film, Harold's character starts to evolve because he hears Karen's voice in his head. Obviously, though, in Karen's book, that can't be the propelling factor. But what is? Inside the world of the book, what are to believe is happening to him to cause the change?
Professor Jules Hibbert (Dustin Hoffman) is the one who propels Harold to pursue Anna (Gyllenhaal), to shop for a guitar, to go live his life. That's not part of the book (or if it is, the film has even more problems than I suspect). It's the voice that ultimately leads Harold to Hibbert, so if Harold didn't hear the voice, there would have been no character development. There's no sense that meeting Anna in his usual way would have changed him - he would have performed the audit and blindly moved on.
What, I'm compelled to wonder, is Karen's book about? A nerdy man decides to save a life? Is that the stuff of a great novel? Is there a reason a nerdy man shouldn't save a life? Cowardice was never an issue with Harold - he just had no dreams.
Inside the novel, the only potential explanation we're given for why Harold is the way he is is because his mother didn't bake. The character is supposed to be part of a masterpiece of literature, but he's a cipher. He's practically a robot. He was engaged once, but we have no idea if that caused him to become more of a robot, or if being a robot caused the engagement to be broken off, or for that matter, if it was he or his fiancee who broke off the wedding. Having absolutely no ambition, as Harold has, is extraordinary - yet this is written off as irrelevant.
The conceit of the film just doesn't work. In discussions with colleagues after the screening, it was suggested I was taking the film too literally. But to me, the art is founded in the details. All the dangling threads distract. If you want to forgive the fact that these very shallow lines don't connect and just have a good time, that's fine - in the end, that's what I did to tolerate the movie. But for a movie to be worthy of great praise, of love, shouldn't more than a few details come together? Shouldn't the conceit work?
Little moments in the movie were also off. Harold's initial reaction to the voice is to think his toothbrush is talking to him; his second reaction is to think someone is in his apartment. This order is completely illogical for the sane man Harold is meant to be at the movie's outset, and has nothing to do with the book Karen is writing - the filmmakers clearly contrived it for laughs.
This kind of thing went on throughout the movie. (That's not to say I never laughed - Hoffman's line, for example, advising Harold to "go develop that" relationship with Anna, was in the context of the movie just brilliant.) But they're mostly cheap laughs. If the mechanics of the joke are more noteworthy than the joke itself, that's a problem.
As for all the white onscreen graphics that depicted Harold's numbers fixation, they were distracting. Uncomplicated as he was, Harold's personality needed no textual illustration, and so the graphics end up smacking of a filmmaker too eager to use everything in his kit: i.e., gimmicky.
Queen Latifah's character, Penny, is dull and useless - mere sounding board. That would be bad enough, but Karen herself is also two-dimensional. Now, Karen is outside her own book, so either she should be three-dimensional (but fails to be), or more likely, Karen is to screenwriter Zach Helm what Harold is to Karen. In which case, we're left with the same problem redoubled - a character as thin as the paper she's written on. Emma Thompson is a heroine of an actress, but this movie has her performing sideshow tricks.
The issues of Karen's writer's block, or why she's so infatuated with death, go unexplored. Ten years is a long time for a successful novelist to go unpublished. It's far from unheard of, but it's significant. There's a story there, but the film doesn't care to explore her character in any depth. It's too busy being clever.
And when Stranger Than Fiction finally brings Karen to a real crisis - the idea that she has possibly killed eight people - the film resolves the crisis practically in the next scene. It's just difficult for me to accept that a movie passionate about writing cares so little about giving its characters depth - no matter how neat it is to be deconstructionist.
Finally, the movie wants you to believe - it's a critical point in the climax, in fact - that Karen's book doesn't work as well without Harold dying. Is there any reason, though, to really believe that? What's critical is that Harold believed he would die. The fact that he lived, of course, was easily enough explained - he got lucky. So the crisis of whether Karen needs to kill off her character is phony. The ending of the film and of the book converge as one, and if you like the ending of the movie (if you think the movie, for example, is Oscar-worthy), there's no reason that the ending of the book doesn't work just as well with Harold living.
I could go on (but I've gone on too long as it is). I sound like Holden Caufield, but so much was phony about the movie. Again, it's not even that I hated it - I like how the movie argues that the little things make life worth living, and the actors themselves are certainly likable (although, predictably from a story like this, they don't all seem to be acting in the same movie) - but the film is asking me to forgive way too much to be enduringly valued.
For me, the contemporary film that continues to set the standard for deconstructing the concept of storytelling was one that was much less on-the-nose, yet indescribably richer: The Truman Show. That picture, as well as Being John Malcovich (a far more successful movie than Charlie Kaufman's follow-up, Adaptation) flourished on both the textual and subtextual levels. They flourished in both worlds; Stranger Than Fiction, like a fast-talkin' salesman, tries to charm its way past its shortcomings. The best that can be said is that at least the charm is there.