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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Movie Review: Stranger than Fiction

I went to another free screening on Thursday night, this time of the new film Stranger than Fiction. And as a special treat, Will Ferrell came out after the screening and interviewed screenwriter Zach Helm. I'll talk a bit about that, but before I do, a review.

Minor Spoiler Warning!

I liked the movie a lot. It was not the broad comedy that I expected from such a high concept idea, and with a lead like Ferrell. This is no Liar, Liar. In style and substance, it is a lot closer to an Adaptation type of film (a film which I loved, by the way).

Ferrell gave the most understated performance I've ever seen from him. He was touching and dramatic, without sacrificing the comedy. One of the central questions the film touches on relates to the similarities and differences between comedies and tragedies, and thus the film is neither a pure comedy, nor a pure drama. It walks a fine line between the two, and does a nice job of balancing them.

The other performances were fabulous as well. Emma Thompson was stellar, in a painful role to watch. Dustin Hoffman was Dustin Hoffman. Maggie Gyllenhaal is a pistol, and a fun, endearing character who she invests with humanity. And she looks great too. Queen Latifah's character was a minor part, but one that was entertaining, juicy, and well-acted. The characters also had a nice, well-rounded completeness, with the realistic details I was referring to in my last post.

The biggest flaw I saw (and I don't think it destroyed the film entirely, just made it somewhat less effective) was that there was too little emphasis on Emma's character. As I saw it, the comedy (and obviously the high concept) stems from Will's character, which is clearly why he got the bulk of the screentime. But thematically, I felt Emma's character was the more important one. And yet, there was a large stretch in the middle of the film where she is entirely off screen and even disappears in her plot-significant voiceover.

Perhaps I'm misinterpreting the theme. Or perhaps it became easier for me to misinterpret that theme because there wasn't a single unifying theme. You see, one of the things that they discussed in the Q&A after the film was the way Helm had written a script that really balanced a lot of distinct stories and things. And while Ferrell congratulated Helm for being able to successfully keep a lot of balls in the air, I don't think he did as good a job of it as he could have. Believe me, I think he did a good job, just not a great or perfect one. I think the specific balance he struck was a bit off.

You see, there was the storyline of Will's character trying to figure out what was going on in his life, Emma's character's struggles to complete her book, and the relationship that grows between Will and Maggie's characters. Those are a lot of different stories, and they don't really seem to have a single theme in common. Not the end of the world when it works (which I think it does here, overall), but also problematic to a certain degree. And it is for that reason that I felt that Emma's character deserved more screentime. Her storyline seemed to be more intricately connected with the overall concept of the film, and thus felt like a more central thematic story.

During the Q&A, I actually asked Helm about it. I asked if there was ever a draft of the script that had more stress on Emma's character, and he said no. And so I felt that was one weakness of the script. Still, I did really like the film.

Furthermore, I didn't completely buy Maggie and Will's relationship. It seemed a bit too convenient, but at the same time, it was a minor enough storyline that I was able to simple accept it, and smile at its quaintness.

So bottom line, I liked the film a lot, and I felt that it even had some important points to make. It had touching moments, and plenty of good laughs. So while it was a drop all over the place, that might have been part of the film's point.

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Blogger Tom said...

Good point.

I would have also wished for a better ending. The bit where Emma's character waits for the phone is wonderful. But the more fantastic connection of narrating the watch as the connecting thread seems too much, to fantastic and over the top.

I really enjoyed the way the story breaks from fantasy to reality at the beginning is great. It could have brought an excellent resolution to each of the characters and easily avoided the way the voiceover spoils it a little at the end.

12:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Um, what I find maddening about this movie is the fact no one catches on to the "bigger" theme to this movie and that is an obscure message concerning 9/11. There were many references to 9/11, big and small from the scene where cell phones were out to the view of a trade center tower outside the window of Harold Crick's hospital room. What the Helm is trying to convey is a mystery but I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that a google search of "Stranger than Fiction" pulls up many 9/11 conspiracy pages. Thoughts?

1:32 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Anon --

Interesting, but I caught absolutely none of that when I saw it, and that from someone who was in NYC on 9/11, and knew a number of people who were there before and after. Including one who died.

I'm not saying it ain't there, but I didn't notice it. And I'm pretty certain it was filmed in Chicago, or something, so I'm not sure what you refer to by the "trade center tower."

Like I said, I'm not saying you're wrong, just nothing I picked up on at all.

1:40 AM  

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