The premise for this film excited me; at first glance, I even thought it might have been a Charlie Kaufman screenplay. (No, turns out it’s by a first-time screenwriter. Inspired by Charlie Kaufman, perhaps?) The trailer reassured me that there was hope for an original story and an enjoyable movie experience. I commented that the trap to avoid here would be the “hero discovers how meaningless his life is and undergoes a transformation into a new, more interesting person” cliche; if the filmmakers could avoid that and give us some original character development, we might just have a great film.

I’m disappointed to report that they did not avoid that trap. True, the transformation wasn’t quite as over-the-top as it is in some films, but it did rely heavily on ever-greater interaction with the love interest, a more casual wardrobe, a hip song performance, and a handful of other overused vehicles that scream “Look at me! I’m a character with an ARC!”

Beyond that, the characters lacked the kind of likeability it usually takes to rally the audience behind their development anyway. When the success of a story hinges on the audience caring about whether the hero lives or dies, the audience had better want him to live. Instead, I felt resigned to the idea that he might die and idly interested in what might happen next. In other words, the filmmakers never really reached me.

The dryness of the humor, the attempts at stylish special effects, the offbeat nature of the story, the pacing of it all — these are all hallmarks of films I love and should have been an easy “in” for the filmmakers with a viewer like me. Instead, I found myself bored by the cloying attempts to merely imitate great films rather than to invent something truly new and original.

For example, the side plot involving Emma Thompson as the novelist and Queen Latifah as her seen-it-all assistant sent by the publisher was as tired as it was tiresome. Emma Thompson was, as usual, more than competent in her role, but to what end? Even she couldn’t elevate the quality of this effort.

And however refreshing it should have been to see Will Ferrell take on a role with more substance than he had to work with in, say, Anchorman or Bewitched, the material here too often gave him miserably little to work with. The audience is left watching Ferrell brush his teeth while we have the nagging sense it’s supposed to be funny.

It should be noted that I saw this film in a theater that must have been full of forgiving Ferrell fans, because there were titters at many of these awkward, un-funny, mundane scenes. If you’re a diehard Ferrell fan, maybe it’s worth the price of admission to laugh at Ferrell as he ties his necktie and brushes his teeth. If you’re a more casual fan of Ferrell’s, you might want to wait and rent this one. And if you’re Ferrell-ambivalent, give this a miss.

– as contributed to Amazon (2 stars out of 5) and IMDb (5 stars out of 10)
(Yes, I know 2 out of 5 and 5 out of 10 doesn’t make much sense. But such is the logic of rating on different scales. We used to go round and round on what constituted the most sensible ratings scale when I worked at Netflix and we would debate allowing users to rate with half-stars. Case in point: 3 out of 5 feels too generous, but 4 out of 10 feels too harsh.)

Side note: parts of the film are shot on location at University of Illinois at Chicago, my alma mater. That was weird, mostly because they were clearly using the buildings for their harsh architectural feel to add visual tension. (What else would you expect from “Brutalist” architecture?) I worked for years in a building very similar to the one they shot in (when I worked at and later ran the Language Lab). It’s odd to see your old school / workplace used in that way.

Update: Roger Ebert disagrees with me, but that’s no surprise. Although I deeply respect his opinion and his work, I think he’s being too generous in his assessment. He’s not wrong in the points he makes about the film, but those points just don’t add up, and he’s doing the math as if they do.

(Oh, also, he does reference the location, saying the director often chose “spare and cold Mies van der Rohe buildings.” The UIC buildings weren’t Mies van der Rohe, but maybe some of the other locations were.)

Mostly, I think the screenplay could have used another edit. It could have been a really cool movie if it had been made better.

My review of “Stranger Than Fiction”: Brilliant concept, disappointing execution

2 thoughts on “My review of “Stranger Than Fiction”: Brilliant concept, disappointing execution

  • November 11, 2006 at 3:53 pm
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    Very timely post! I’ve been thinking about seeing this film, even though I’m not a Will Ferrell fan, and now I know to avoid it. Thanks!

    Also, I SO OFTEN wish I could rate things with half stars! Mostly because it means I give the same rating to things that don’t deserve the same rating.

    Reply
  • November 12, 2006 at 6:44 pm
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    Not being a Will Ferrell fan, I doubt I’ll see the film until it comes out on dvd; but from I’ve seen and read, it reminds me of the 1991 film, “Delirious”.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0101701/

    Reply

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