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Thread: "Stranger Than Fiction"--THUMBS UP

  1. #1
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    Default "Stranger Than Fiction"--THUMBS UP

    My husband and I saw this movie last night and absolutely loved it. I think it will especially appeal to "literary" types. One warning--the previews makes it out to be a comedy. While it does have a lot of funny moments, it really is a bittersweet romantic melodrama wrapped up in a literary enigma. Be prepared to be thinking about the movie a lot the day after.

  2. #2
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    Default Re: "Stranger Than Fiction"--THUMBS UP

    The wife and I just saw this, this afternoon.

    I liked it. Shades of "Adaptation" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," in terms of being a meta-movie of sorts... but considerably less complex.

    I love Emma Thompson, and she did great with a character that's basically straight out of central casting. And as a recent fan of Will Ferrell, it was also nice to see him in a different role (though I think fans of his over-the-top stuff will compare this turn to Robin Williams' and Jim Carey's sad attempts to "go serious").

    It was fun, but unlike the other meta-movies I mentioned, it hasn't yet inspired much post-viewing deep thought at all. As a clever concept with some great characters and interesting quirks (like the graphic overlays), I enjoyed it. But I agree with Dustin Hoffman's character in "Stranger Than Fiction" as to the effect of Emma Thompson's character's last-minute change of heart.

    It's a movie that gave us the ending we'd want... after lecturing us the whole time to appreciate the importance of the endings we don't want. It felt forced and awkward, right down to the denouement spelled out via melodramatic voice over. I can't figure out if Marc Forster was being ironic or not.

  3. #3
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    Default Re: "Stranger Than Fiction"--THUMBS UP

    I'm seeing this tonight, and look most forward to it.

    On the subject of comic actors making "sad attempts" at "going serious," I must take exception to this strange misconception. Actors know that being funny is much, much, much harder than being serious; that acting like you're laughing is much harder than acting like you're crying. It is true that Williams and Carey had some missteps in more dramatic roles, but as they've proven many times since, they've got what it takes to pull off a serious role (Good Will Hunting and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). If they've got a few dogs, that can be expected: Who doesn't?

    Try making a list of actors who started off strictly in comedy and then made very good dramatic appearances. Then compare that to the list of dramatic actors who successfully pulled off the switch in the opposite direction. Your list of comics who could play straight is a great deal longer, is it not?

    I would like to cite a few good cases. Meryl Streep, probably the most amazing dramatic actress of our time, had great difficulty in comic and adventure roles. She eventually got a few good ones, but not a one of them really Oscar-worthy. If you've seen A Prairie Home Companion, you know how hard Streep seemed to be working, especially when compared to how effortless Lily Tomlin made it look. In The Banger Sisters, Goldie Hawn comes across as a better actress than Susan Sarandon. How many times have Sean Penn and Robert DeNiro successfully pulled off a good comic role? Maybe not once between the two of them, and they are the best there is.

    I have said since just after my high school years that two actors I would love to direct in straight dramas are Michael Keaton and Goldie Hawn. Here are two actors who understand what makes comedy work: As Sid Caeser said, "Great comedy makes you laugh until you cry. Great drama makes you cry until you laugh." The latter is not easy; the former takes an especially rare talent. Hawn and Keaton, in my opinion, have that. Cheri Oteri is another. Adam Sandler, as he shows in Punch Drunk Love, 50 First Dates, and Spanglish, is probably another, if he tries a little harder to use his brain.

    One last thought about Farrell: You know those cheerleader sketches he did with Cheri Oteri on SNL? They were silly and witty and clever and hilarious, but they were also heartbreaking, the way almost everything Gilda Radner did was heartbreaking. Here were two high school students full of spirit and desire, lacking the talent to be on the real cheering squad. Rather than let that get in their way, they show up at swim meets and chess tourneys, where of course they are not appreciated. That little bit of wistfulness just beneath the surface, if Farrell knows it's there (and I think he does), can get him an Oscar. I'm totally serious.
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    Default Re: "Stranger Than Fiction"--THUMBS UP

    Boy. That's a lot of analysis for one comment.

    For what it's worth, I've liked many a comic actors' forays into serious drama. I raved on this very site about Steve Carrell's turn in "Little Miss Sunshine." Robin Williams has really had a rash of bad luck lately but there's always "Dead Poets Society." And I personally think Jim "Ace Ventura" Carey has done very well with drama (as well as turned in a few stinkers himself).

    I was just saying that if someone who loved Will Ferrell in "Zoolander" went to see "Stranger Than Fiction," they might be disappointed and just toss it in that bin. I only recently came to appreciate Will Ferrell. And I agree that he's got a sense for the pathos in the most seemingly simplistic comedic situations. "Ricky Bobby" worked because he was both hilarious and pathetic at once.

    If you wrote that much having not seen the movie, Scrivener, I look forward to your review later tonight. I'd be curious if you see the ending as just perfect, or a cop out. And I wonder if you catch one musical cue that implies the director might have been up to something... or not.

  5. #5
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    Default Re: "Stranger Than Fiction"--THUMBS UP

    Wow. I loved it.

    Here are some quick thoughts while they're fresh and as they pop into my head. I'll respond to Pz's "cop-out or not?" question at the end, in a spoiler window.

    1. I want to have sex with Maggie Gyllenhaal.
    2. Watch Dustin Hoffman, even when he's not the focus of a scene. The man is an actor. He knows when the ball is his, and he knows when it's not his, and he knows how to take the ball and how to give the ball and how even to leave the ball on the floor, waiting for someone else to pick it up. Will Ferrell does the right things in his scenes with Hoffman: He lets Hoffman be the QB.
    3. On the other hand, where Ferrell spent his scenes reacting to Hoffman, Queen Latifah does something different in her scenes with Emma Thompson. You know how sometimes you're in the backyard and there's a swarm of gnats over your head, and how when you move, they move with you? Those gnats are swarming about in frenzied mating (it's true) and the reason they move with you over your head is they're using you as a reference point. They don't even really know they're moving with you; they're simply staying with the object. Queen Latifah is the tall, sturdy object and Emma Thompson is the gnat, moving here and there, around and about this calm presence. It works really well. Latifah gives the nervous, smoking, frantic, desperate Thompson an anchor, and she uses it well. Nice job by both actors.
    4. The most interesting dynamic is between Gyllenhaal and Ferrell; here we get to see Ferrell really act, and Gyllenhaal, who is usually the best thing about any movie she's in, seems to have a lot of fun in this role. The characters' affection for one another really works. I want to see this again so I can close my eyes in any scene where Gyllenhaal talks about cookies, just so I can hear the terrific way she pronounces things. She is a confident actor who knows how to play coy, confrontational, and vulnerable in rapid succession. Serious acting chops.
    5. There is a way some actors give the illusion of doing great acting, when all they're doing is keeping a straight face and speaking really quietly (if you're into football, it's what Chad Johnson did after last Sunday's loss, whispering very softly that he's not being used right in the Bengals' offense). Recent movies with Bill Murray and anything Bruce Willis did with M. Night Shyamalan are good examples (though Murray really is great in Lost in Translation). Ferrell relies on this through much of the movie, presenting as hangdog and hopeless. I like it. He does a good job of holding that note and then running away from it at times, like in the scene where he thanks Hoffman's character for helping turn his life into a comedy.
    6. Speaking of that, the best line in the film that doesn't involve cookies is, "This may sound like gibberish, but I think I'm living a tragedy."
    7. Early in the film, Thompson holds her face with both hands, and we get one quick chance to see the Thompson we know: Graceful and beautiful and elegant. It's quick, and we don't get it again, but it's a nice reminder.
    8. I think it's kinda funny and a nice touch that when Ferrell gives the manuscript to Hoffman at the pool, Hoffman is reading Sue Grafton's I is for Innocent.
    9. Again, if you don't really know what people mean by "good acting," take a look at what Dustin Effing Hoffman does when the attention is supposed to be on the other actors. He's wonderful. I used to teach drama, and wish I had this movie to show those former students of mine, because it's a difficult thing to teach.
    10. I am not a fan of music video sequences, and this film has two. One is okay but goes on too long (Farrell actually plays the guitar and sings, so it's not one of those scenes where music magically appears in these characters' lives)(although come to think of it, if there were ever a movie where that was appropriate, it might be this one). The other I can live with because it's pretty well done, when Ferrell takes a very long bus ride.
    11. Yes, it's a literate movie, but I saw the film with two pretty non-literate friends, and they enjoyed the film a great deal. Don't let comparisons to Adaptation scare you off.
    12. This film does remind me a great deal of Adaptation and Possession (that great film with Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart). In fact, I have a lot to say about that in the spoiler below.
    13. I really want to see this again. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and it may have knocked Akeelah and the Bee from its spot at the top of my best-of list this year.
    14. It's a funny, sad, poignant, entertaining flick. I can't think of anyone who really wouldn't dig it, except people who want to see dumb-funny or even smart-dumb-funny. This doesn't have an ounce of dumb in it.

    Is the end a copout? I don't think so, but let me tell a quick story first.

    I went to see a movie with some friends in college once, and when it was over, all I could say was, "Wasn't that a GREAT movie? Oh my gosh!" My friends were like, "Yeah, it was good, but it was too sad! I'm all depressed now." We'd seen the same movie, but I thought it was so well done in its sadness that I was excited by it. My friends, who just absorbed the film the way it was (I think) intended, were effectively affected by it. I realized later that night that as a critical film-viewer (not to mention lifelong Engish major) the sadness of a work didn't make me sad if it the ART was good. This saddened me a bit; I wanted to be able to still cry at a movie. I eventually compromised and gave up certain kinds of films (most splatter films, and most things with realistic man-on-man fighting, like Fight Club and Gladiator).

    This is sort of what Karen Eiffel goes through when she realizes that Harold Crick is real. She has come to care so much about her art that she has forgotten what it might do to real people. It isn't just Harold she saves when she changes her story; in a lot of ways, it's herself. The happy ending might not be as artistically beautiful, but it's personally beautiful; that's why it's so touching when Farrell gives his friend the Space Camp for Grownups information or when Latifah leaves the nicotine patches on the typewriter. Sure, it's not as ironic or artistic, but it's nice.

    Hoffman's character represents the opposite sentiment, and of course he's right in a lot of ways. I don't think there's any way he's a bad guy in this, and I don't honestly know what advice I'd have given Harold in the same situation. Hoffman didn't say it was just good—he said it was her masterpiece.

    Of course, this is a sort of meta line of thinking for the film, too. Is it perhaps artistically not as good a movie because it gives us the happy ending? I think yes. However, recall the last half hour of Adaptation. It does such a GREAT job of becoming the script it had been trying to avoid that the last half hour of the film is AWFUL! So it's intentionally awful and accomplishes its purpose, but it is hell to sit through and the gratuitous violence at the end shows us what gratuitous violence does to a film. It is such a successful film that it wrecks itself. I think Oliver Stone was doing the same thing with his very good The Doors, where at first it's interesting and fascinating and kind of fun, but then it gets very very tiresome and you're just hoping it will end soon, which is what I imagine life with drugs is like. Again, so successful that it wrecks itself.

    I think Stranger than Fiction lets itself become less effective in order to save itself, the way Eiffel becomes less effective in order to save HERself. Does that make any sense? So in a way, by making the movie less brilliant, the writer and director make it a better experience. I can't find fault in that. I was pleased, actually, because I cared so much about Gyllenhaal and Ferrell's characters.

    I hope that makes sense; please tell me if it doesn't, because I'd like to try it again after I've thought about it some more.
    But I'm disturbed! I'm depressed! I'm inadequate! I GOT IT ALL! (George Costanza)
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  6. #6
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    Default Re: "Stranger Than Fiction"--THUMBS UP

    Yes, it makes total sense, Scrivener.

    I'm a bit prudish, but I loved your point #1.

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    Default Re: "Stranger Than Fiction"--THUMBS UP

    Oh, Scrivener, who don't you want to have sex with?

    Yes, Maggie was great. I used to work with someone who could be her clone, right down to the attitude and eyes and tattoo. And she worked in a cafe. But anyway.

    Dustin Hoffman was great. Emma Thompson was great. Will Ferrell was really great. Queen Latifah was... Queen Latifah. I enjoyed the film a lot, don't get me wrong... money and babysitting credits and time well spent.

    Some moments I thoroughly enjoyed. Ferrell and Gyllenhaal on the bus, and when and why Ferrell gets off. Thompson's daydreams. Definitely almost every scene Hoffman was in.

    And I get what you're trying to say, especially given the comparisons to Adaptation and what happens to the script (i.e. becoming that which it rails against). And when that Blade Runner song starts playing toward the end, I got the feeling that it was a hint toward some kind of parallel meta commentary going on.

    But some things just gave me the impression of a film that aspires to that kind of greater meaning, rather than exhibiting it. There were minor, but clear, stumbles into flat convention that often took me out of the moment.

    I liked Gyllenhaal's sensuous story of baking cookies... but then the last line about changing the world made me want to toss mine. And the "Fight Club"-esque graphic overlays and the personified watch were cute, but went nowhere. And the decision that Thompson ultimately made about Crick could have stood on its own... but then she spells it out with that melodramatic closing soliloquy.
    I don't mind that there was the happy ending, and can appreciate the idea that "not bad" can be enough -- it doesn't always have to be a "masterpiece." I even liked the bit about the mundane and routine being part of what keeps us alive, as much as those big, life changing moments.

    But the only reason Harold Crick changed -- and the basis of making viewers empathise with him -- was because he was convinced of the inevitability of his death, and he even came to understand why it had to happen and when it would happen (as Hoffman's character notes, we all die eventually, so why not as part of something greater than us). And it was great that he helped his friend realize his dream, and Queen Latifah did her little nice gesture. The setup was so perfect for his checking out, I can see how the ending we got could have been a clever twist on conventional expectations. But instead it came across as clumsy to me.

    It's definitely not as deep or convoluted as Adaptation, so I liked it best when it was what it was, not striving for something more. I liked all the characters we meet and the situation they're in, regardless of how the whole package turned out.

  8. #8
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    Default Re: "Stranger Than Fiction"--THUMBS UP

    spoiler warning:

    What about the possibility that Eiffel does not change her novel for Crick's sake but for her own? She is a mess throughout the movie, and I suspect it isn't because of her writer's block. This idea, this possibility that her characters (very well thought-out) might live is a new thing for her, and maybe saving Crick really saves her, artistically and personally. Those scenes where she is brainstorming ways to kill Harold seem to be taking quite a toll on her. Remember, in these daydreams, she is the one dying, and most of the time (if not all of the time), she is killing herself.

    I wonder if on the cutting-room floor there are a few scenes that give us Queen Latifah and Emma Thompson interacting with one another and giving us a better picture of the Eiffel character. I would like, too, to have seen what it is the Gyllenhaal character gets out of this relationship with Crick, but maybe that would be too long a movie.

    So the more I think about it, the more I like the end and the more I want to see it again. There are times in my life when I need a good, formulaic, predictable romantic comedy. Maybe the movie we got was the movie that the characters needed to be a part of, if that's not taking the self-awareness thing too far.


    And maybe that speech at the end, which I liked and which you don't, is there for Eiffel. She wrote it for herself, maybe. She seems to be in as much need of appreciating the small moments as does Harold, wouldn't you say?
    But I'm disturbed! I'm depressed! I'm inadequate! I GOT IT ALL! (George Costanza)
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    Default Re: "Stranger Than Fiction"--THUMBS UP

    Hey, there are times in my life when I need a big, dumb, noisy, effects-laden, shallow-as-a-puddle action film. I definitely can appreciate the idea that a movie doesn't have to be the next Citizen Kane, or a book doesn't have to be the next Moby Dick, or whatever. And that's certainly an interesting way to frame what "Stranger Than Fiction" is saying, somewhere. Maybe Emma Thompson's character needed the release, to escape that self- and reader-imposed expectation of what her last book (after a decade-long drought) would be like.

    I liked this movie a lot, for its performances, its basic concept, its clever execution. I'm glad you're not, but I get the feeling a lot of people are ascribing a very high level of thinking to the film (a la "Adaptation") that's not really there.

    Having talked with other friends who've seen "Stranger than Fiction," though, I concede I might just be a cynic. I'm feeling a bit like Elaine Bennis and "The English Patient."

  10. #10
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    Default Re: "Stranger Than Fiction"--THUMBS UP

    Quote Originally Posted by pzarquon View Post
    I'm feeling a bit like Elaine Bennis and "The English Patient."
    Well, that movie just stunk.
    But I'm disturbed! I'm depressed! I'm inadequate! I GOT IT ALL! (George Costanza)
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