Stranger than Fiction
In an article published on the Alternate Takes website, James McDowell discusses a tendency in contemporary American cinema, which he calls “the quirky new wave.” Others have denominated it plainly “indie” filmmaking, but the truth of the matter is that there is a buckload of recent films who follow a same formula and have a similar, “quirky” tone.
In its most reductive and banal instance, there is the American Beauty formula, which is about a middle-aged man whose life is so dull he has to break free from its numbing grip and find joy in marijuana and plastic bags flowing in the wind. There is always a woman who reaches out and touches the character’s heart too, and she is the catalyst. Hey, even Zach Braff’s Garden State is in that mold. The idea behind this predicament is one of redemption and finding one’s true essence (as irksome as that may sound), one that has been lost by one having to conform to societal norms. These are usually dumb but sensitive characters, and the narratives usually begin with them in a silent, unacknowledged depression. Some of them find their “truth” in the love of a woman or in some aesthetic endeavor (sometimes both), and the dumber and number the character is in the beginning, the bigger the turnaround. Theorists have been calling works corresponding to this formula as belonging in a “movement” called post-postmodernism, in which the loss of identity and purpose of postmodernism is violated in order to find a “beauty” or “truth” there is buried there somehow, reverting back to the idea of “essence” of the modernists.
Postmodernism is very well recognized as the locus of metafiction and metalanguage, and in American recent filmmaking, Charlie Kaufman (e.g. Adaptation) and Woody Allen (e.g. Deconstructing Harry) have explored the concept with great intelligence and taste. Adaptation, for one, was impressive in its full commital to this project, about a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman trying to adapt a novel called The Orchid Thief, and the movie is about the failure of doing so, and about the process of adaptation itself (also metaphorically) and it treated the movie itself as part of this experiment. The metalanguage gimmick is kind of overplayed and banal by now, and in this case, Kaufman adds something new to the mix.
In Stranger than Fiction, what happens, I suppose is that writer Zach Helm employs metalanguage not as a gimmick or an aesthetic project, but only as a plot device. His film is in full-fledged post-postmodernist mode, with an almost caricatural depiction of the “numb” character, Harold Crick (Will Ferrel), a IRS employee who works like clockwork, almost literally, and finds his life being narrated by an author (Emma Thompson). Worried, he seeks a literary theory professor (Dustin Hoffman), whose input is limited to trying to find out whether he’s in a comedy or a tragedy. His romantic interest is Ana Pascal, a baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal), whom he is auditing. Turns out the author is really writing Crick’s story as he lives it, and she’s decided he has to die.
Will Ferrel, possibly trying to pull the same pathetic persona Jim Carrey did in 1998’s The Truman Show (with which this movie has many similarities), is nothing but mediocre — at least he’s not overacting. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character is simply implausible, and their romance culminates in one of the sappiest endings in recent movie history. Not even Emma Thompson pulls her character off (although it’s less her fault than the script’s); only Dustin Hoffman does, and just because college professors are always cool.
What really bothers me is that the literary thing, Crick being a character rather than a real person, his life is being written as he lives it, etc. does not go anywhere. There is not the fictional universe in contrast to the real universe: they’re the same, which raises a number of important points due to implausibility and inconsistency. What makes Crick begin to hear his own life being narrated? At first, he can only hear it during his routine tasks – if he acknowledges the narration it stops, suggesting that his mindless routine is the prison of fiction and realizing it would lead to a more “real” existence. However, this is later contradicted, as there is no logic to the narrative instances. Also, the fact that the author is also in the story would mean that somehow she is also a character. But no: one keeps expecting these questions to be touched upon and developed. Instead, they are completely ignored, decidedly not wishing to explore interesting ground of metafiction. This was one of the areas Kaufman’s Adaptation excelled, having an awareness of its status as a movie and an adaptation. Stranger than Fiction, in the other hand, feels like American Beauty is trying to be Adaptation, and fails miserably because it does not understand the first thing about being meta.
In Stranger than Fiction, Crick’s life having an author is only a plot device to explore some aspects of determinism — he knows he has to die in the name of aesthetics, and what can he do? And one of Dustin Hoffman’s lines is the most truthful about the film, that there is nothing literary about Crick at all. It’s acceptable in Adaptation when Kaufman writes about The Orchid Thief because that book is very literary; but in this case, it’s impossible to accept Crick having to die in name of art because if the novel he’s in is anything like the film, it wouldn’t be anywhere near a literary masterpiece.