Running Time: 113 mins
Rated: Rated M
I could offer a very Jungian explanation of why a large number in the audience may well not enjoy Stranger than Fiction - this is a film which expounds and illustrates some literary and psychological theories - but in the vein of the film, it is better to offer them obliquely. The screenplay, full of cultural and cerebral jokes, wants the audience to do the work. The film is one of those entertaining fantasies (filmed and played as if it were realistically happening). It is full of intuitive leaps that are not always immediately logical. And just as if we were getting a handle on it all, off it goes again. Which means that it is an intuitive's delight.
A couple of years ago, Dustin Hoffman appeared in I Love Huckabees which was billed as an existential comedy. Stranger than Fiction, again with Hoffman, could be described in the same way. There is some light philosophising about identity, some more serious philosophising about facing death.
Will Ferrell submerges all his zany instincts (Ricky Bobby, Anchorman, The Producers) and gives an excellently subdued performance as a quiet, unimaginative tax officer who begins hearing a voice describing everything that he does, even anticipating what he will do. The voice is that of Emma Thompson in her precise British best. We quickly discover that Ferrell is the central character in Thompson's new novel. But she has writer's block (though reluctantly accepting the assistant (Queen Latifah) imposed on her by her publishers) as she tries to imagine how she will kill off this character.
When Ferrell realises what is happening and gets sympathetic but not helpful advice from psychologists (Tom Hulce and Linda Hunt), he consults a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman) who explores his dilemma with him, trying to work out whether he is in a comedy or a tragedy. In the meantime, Ferrell slightly lets himself go as he is attracted to a cookie baker (Maggie Gylenhaal) who does not pay all her taxes, only the percentage of money that is put to uses she approves of.
Will the character discover who the author is? Will she satisfactorily kill him off? Will this have an emotional effect on her? What will the professor finally advise? All this - and more are explored and answered.
Working on a happy ending (comedy or tragedy) challenges the presuppositions of authors and critics alike. It always seems 'better', 'purer', 'more noble' to many critics to have an unhappy ending - with a touch or more of irony if possible. But, do authors and critics really want to go home to unhappy and tragic families in fact? How many of us want the artistically satisfying tragic ending in real life? So, why not happiness, emotions, sentiment at the end of a novel, play or film? Listening to Emma Thompson speaking on all of this is a nicely critical challenge.
Very well acted, the stars at their best, wittily written by Zach Helm and artfully directed by Swiss Marc Forster (unpredictable as he also directed the diverse Monster's Ball and Finding Neverland), it may be a bit tedious for Jungian Sensing types but stimulating for Jungian intuitives.
Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.