Stranger Than Fiction (Forster, 2006) — 10 Years Later

Rotten Tomatoes may not be the best judiciary for establishing the quality of a film, but it is a valuable repository–an easy index for a cross-section of critical reviews.

What Was Said Then

A decade after the release of Marc Forster’s quirky Will Ferrell vehicle, Stranger Than Fiction, a glance at the film’s less favorable reviews reveals a telling pattern:

“…Helm and Forster aren’t quite Kaufman and Jonze.” — Empire Magazine

“…the idea would have worked better as one of Rod Serling’s half-hour epistles on human foibles.” — Toronto Star

“…Mr. Helm’s script never rises above its conceit to reach the giddy Charlie Kaufman heights to which it aspires.” — Big Picture Big Sound

“…Stranger Than Fiction is basically Adaptation for Dummies.” — E! Online

“…Finally, a Charlie Kaufman movie for people who are too stupid to understand Charlie Kaufman movies.” — Philadelphia Weekly

“This is Will Ferrell’s Being John Malkovich or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but not as good as either of those other comedies of the mind.” — Advocate

“You could imagine Stranger than Fiction as a repeat of The Truman Show as adapted by Adaptation author Charlie Kaufman. Early on, Harold’s story clicks. But Zach Helm’s script reaches The End before Harold reaches his.” — Boulder Weekly

“It seems like the screenwriter may have suffered a shortage of ideas and remedied the problem by watching Charlie Kaufman films.” — Newark Star Ledger

“If the Charlie Kaufman-like writing theme suggests Adaptation., Zach Helm’s script really says little about authorship or form, settling for positing rather than explaining a capricious universe where a giant steam-shovel can bite out one’s living.” — Slant Magazine

“Movies with terrific ideas are a rare commodity in Hollywood. The idea behind Stranger Than Fiction is the kind of Charlie Kaufmanesque conceit that sounds a lot better than the way it’s played out.” — Christian Science Monitor

“The movie’s vigorous efforts to channel Charlie Kaufman and Andrew Niccol, leave it looking rather familiar, not strange at all.” — PopMatters

“Screenwriter Zach Helm’s comedy has some quirky points, but it’s very sugary and sentimental, and feeble compared to the work of those who have done the same sort of thing better: Woody Allen or Charlie Kaufman.” — Guardian

What I Say Now

Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze get mentioned a lot in reviews of Stranger Than Fiction, particularly considering they had nothing to do with it. If the reviews for Marc Forster’s film tell me anything, it’s that the difference between an auteur and and a director may well be whether or not their names become adjectives. Hitchcockian. Chaplinesque. Spielbergian. Even casual viewers know (or think they do) what these labels mean.

Kaufman and Jonze are still relevant directors in Hollywood today. Her was a critics’ darling in 2013, and Anomalisa kept Kaufman’s name on many critics’ awards lists in 2015. Ask me who else is following them in terms of doing genre-defying metaficiton and I can’t really say. I’ll see their influence at festivals–this year’s SXSW included films like The Arbalest and The Master Cleanse–but in terms of studio productions? Perhaps one could argument that Wes Anderson should be grouped with Kaufman and Jonze, but I find his work more twee than formally quixotic. Compare Magnolia with Inherent Vice and it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that Paul Thomas Anderson, while deftly handling complex narratives, isn’t as preoccupied as he used to be with questioning the nature of narrative itself.

Neither, really, is Stranger Than Fiction. Its conceit–that Will Ferrell’s character is a literary creation somehow come to life–always plays like an affected literary gimmick rather than the sort of marvelous magical realism that better describes Jonze and Kaufman at their best. And that’s a statement coming from someone who doesn’t really even like most of Jonze’s or Kaufman’s work.

The most interesting thing in Stranger Than Fiction is its idea. But the execution is strangely flat. The actors are talented, but in the ensemble (Queen Latifah, Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ferrell), only Dustin Hoffman comes across as a person who is his character rather than playing his character. He’s an English professor who finds space in the midst of this supernatural turn of events to be frustrated that he didn’t correctly predict the author who created Ferrell’s bland persona. Thompson is supposed to be that desperate author, Latifah a fixer from the publisher, Gyllenhaal a law school dropout who bakes cookies and is charmed by the vanilla tax auditor who is threatening her business.

If it sounds like I think Stranger Than Fiction was (and is) overvalued, I do. I suspect I understand why some people were charmed by it; I think it was an attempt by some more mainstream talent to be influenced by a conventional industry’s dabblings in the experimental. Perhaps in 2006, it looked like actors who had started on Saturday Night Live or doing slapstick comedy could follow in Robin Williams’s footsteps and transition into serious, maybe even Oscar-winning, roles. Remember, this was just two years after Jim Carrey had followed up The Truman Show with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Even Adam Sandler was testing the waters, appearing in Punch-Drunk Love.

The air of possibility that hangs over these against-type castings turns out to have been more of a blip than a Hollywood revolution. Even before his passing, Williams’s run of serious roles (Good Will Hunting, Insomnia, One Hour Photo) had reverted back to junk like RV, World’s Greatest Dad, and mugging appearances in the Night at the Museum franchise. Sandler’s last few movies have included such gems as The Ridiculous 6Jack and Jill, and two Grown Ups movies. Pop quiz: without using IMDB, name the last movie you remember Jim Carrey being in? Dumb and Dumber To? Mister Popper’s Penguins? Ferrell shows dramatic chops here (and in Everything Must Go) but his screen persona feels even more tied to slapstick now than it was ten years ago.

What happened?

Trends in film can’t be reduced to one or even two factors, but two likely contributors are surely the 2008 recession and the proliferation of streaming content. Hollywood has always been risk averse, and an international financial slowdown would make any industry reluctant to deviate from the tried-and-true. No Internet film blog is seemingly without some meme showing how tent poles, superheroes, and sequels make up a greater and greater percentage of our theatrical offerings. Want to experiment with form or play an actor against type? Television, not indie movies, might be where you want to be these days. Kevin Spacey breaks the fourth wall in House of Cards. Orange is the New Black gives us females in prison in the latest comedy-drama hybrid.

Look at the highest grossing films of 2015 and you will find two Ferrell vehicles in the top 30. Daddy’s Home and Get Hard grossed over 240 million dollars combined. Kaufman’s Anomalisa? It took in approximately 3.4 million, less than half its reported budget.Ten years after Stranger Than Fiction, we like our comedy loud, crass, and stupid. Dustin Hoffman’s professor tells Ferrell’s Harold Crick that he needs to accept the role that is written for him to advance the cause of art.  Today, I wonder if Ferrell feels like his character–unable to decide for himself if he wants to be in a tragedy or comedy because having a role written specifically for you has become as much a burden as a boon?


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