Stranger Than Fiction (Early draft)

  • Stranger Than Fiction
  • Written by Zach Helm and Directed by Marc Forster
  • Starring Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson and Maggie Gyllenhaal
  • Derek Wyman sits in his car writing this review on a legal pad by the light of the one functioning street lamp in the parking lot of the movie theater. He is trying to get the breadth of it on paper before it evaporates, or worse before it evolves into drivel. Here he is protected by the distance from his life, once he gets home that protection is gone and the movie is reduced to a distraction.

    Films are flawed by design. The amount of kismet needed for a movie to succeed is almost always unattainable. Talent is much rarer than ambition or opportunity and film is a medium dependent on talent at so many disciplines that, at best, a few movies are great despite a lack of talent present at any one or many of the aspects of the production. There are far more people with the drive and money to make films than there are people talented enough to make good ones.

    A novel is the output of a single artist and in such is good or bad mainly due to the talent of that one individual, or in the case of Death and Taxes by Kay Eiffel, the ability of that individual to do what needs to be done ignoring the effect that deed will have on anyone else. This creates a promising premise to seed Stranger Than Fiction. It is a consumable if disconnected metaphor comparing a novel to life. Or, I suppose a juxtaposition of life to a movie.

    As telling as anything in his persona is Derek’s desire to see more than is really there, in both life and film. But, as he is a participant in both, does it not follow that if he can see it than it indeed is present? One needs to be careful not to overlook the end consumerâ’s part in any art form. If you build it and no one sees it, then does it exist at all? If no one gets the joke, is it still clever? If no one cries at the end of Act III, was it still a tragedy?

    The one unavoidable rule to tragedy is that the protagonist must die, and it must follow some type of heroism. It need not immediately lead to his undoing, but in the case of Harold Crick, it was absolutely necessary or as a character (and as a man) he would simply evaporate.

    This is where the metaphor lies, a writer writing a story about a writer that doesn’t have the ability to do what needs to be done, who has lost her heart to commercialism or just to humanity (depending on your personal level of cynicism.). Is it the character (the writer) that fails or the screenwriter himself that loses his way?

    Or, Derek ponders, is it the viewer that fails to see the light.

    One of the hurdles this movie faces (and has been addressed quite well by Director Marc Forster) is the misconception by many that is was written by Charlie Kaufman. But, while it’s structure certainly has a Kaufmanesque feel to it, Kaufman’s movies are all about the plot and this movie is all about the characters. And that is where it ultimately falls apart.

    The other unfortunate comparison is with Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch Drunk Love”, which was a movie that tried so hard to say something that is bludgeoned the viewer with such an uncompromising tragedy that it was nearly unwatchable. This movie tries to make us smile; it gives us the happy ending that we all want to see in great tragedies, but know is not possible. It’s one of literature’s great paradoxes. We want the hero to get what he deserves, but if he does than he is no longer heroic.

    The best scene in “Stranger Than Fiction” finds Harold bringing flours to Maggie. It is the one great gesture in his life and he can only come up with the very uncomfortable “I want you” as his closer. It is cringe inducing but honest. As I watched the scene, I saw it as a contemporary, in tone not time, to the scene from “Say Anything” where John Cusak holds the boombox over his head, blaring “In Your Eyes”. That is one on the greatest moments in film history because we have so much invested in John Cusakâ’s character; he is a hero, he is living for us, doing what we don’t have the stomach or substance to do ourselves. But that film was a comedy and this one needs to be a tragedy. Harold Crick needs to be a hero, he is much too much like us. And while it is, indeed, in our guts to cheer for him, it is not in our hearts to care about him.

    Derek pauses at the pad, deciding whether or not analysis of the plot actually holds any relevance. Does it matter that the movie, regardless of which ending you assume, lacks the supposed irony that would make the novel that centers it so substantial? Is there anything to be gained by pointing out that the “watch” as a plot device is shallow and rather disconnected from the theme and tone of the story.

    It is simply enough to write that the movie is both brilliant and broken. It succeeds in the depths of it’s own flaws. Which maybe is exactly the point. Or, more likely, I am reading more into it than is really there.

    But, that is not only the viewers prerogative, but his responsibility.

    Author’s note:

    As much as the arc in this piece requires it to be have written in that parking lot, in the pouring rain, it was not. In reality I am writing it now, at my desk eating a slice of blueberry pie. I would like to have done the heroic thing and this review would likely to have made more sense if it had been written while the flow of the movie was still fresh in my head. But, for better or for worse I am not quite ready to commit to the early exit that all heroes must face. Instead I am still holding on to the hope that somewhere out there Maggie is waiting for me to bring her flours.

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