Friday, June 20, 2008

Stranger Than Fiction (live action movie)

Harold Crick, played by Will Ferrell, is an IRS agent whose life is boring. Every day he brushes his teeth the same number of times and arrives at the bus stop nearly too late by the same number of minutes. He basically lives his life by his watch. One day, his routine is interrupted by his realization that he can hear a woman's voice narrating his life. If it weren't for the fact that this woman is so accurate and sometimes says things that even Harold doesn't know, he'd suspect he's going insane. Harold ends up going to a literature professor (played by Dustin Hoffman) for help. Eventually, despite the voice and its dire foreshadowing (according to the woman, Harold is going to die, and he doesn't know how or when), Harold falls in love with an anarchist baker and figures out how to relax and enjoy himself. In order to continue with his new, more enjoyable life, however, Harold is going to have to find the person who is telling the story of his life and convince her not to kill him.

This movie made me think of The Truman Show - I never expected Jim Carrey to be able to do so well in a mostly serious role, just like I never really thought Will Ferrell could do so well in a mostly serious role. Although there are funny moments in the movie, Harold Crick is mostly just a boring, ordinary guy trying to figure out what the heck is going on with him and his life. Harold begins the movie as a stiff, wooden numbers guy, and he ends it a likable person who's more than some cardboard IRS employee.

I only have vague memories of the previews for this movie, but I remember them making it seem like this movie was mostly about Harold's attempts to find the author who's narrating is life. In actuality, Harold doesn't go looking for the author until nearly the end of the movie. Instead, he spends most of the movie trying to get help that doesn't involve medication for schizophrenia, figuring out what kind of story he's in (a tragedy or a comedy?), and learning to have a more enjoyable life. Interwoven with all of this are scenes of Karen Eiffel (played by Emma Thompson), the woman narrating his life, as she tries to break through writer's block that's lasted for 10 years. All that's left is for her to figure out how to kill Harold Crick, and her new assistant (played by Queen Latifah, who does a pretty decent job of it) does whatever she can to help.

This is a very strange, yet enjoyable movie, although it was a bit unbelievable that so many people were so easily convinced that someone they couldn't hear was narrating Harold's life. I really enjoyed Karen Eiffel's reaction when she meets Harold, however - Emma Thompson did a great job there, and her slightly-sick, sleep-deprived look made her reaction even more convincing.

Of those viewers who are able to adjust to the movie's strangeness and suspend their disbelief, some may be even more won over by the ending, while others may find that it ruins the movie. I won't give any details, but I will say that, while the movie sets things up for a sad ending, the actual ending is a happy one. I really enjoy happy endings, but I still haven't really decided if I would have preferred a sad ending for this movie - its happy ending feels a little forced and could probably have been done better. Overall, though, I enjoyed this movie.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Anansi Boys (book) by Neil Gaiman - This is the second book in Gaiman's American Gods Series, but both books work pretty well as stand-alones and involve almost completely different casts of characters, so you shouldn't be too confused if you start with this book. In this book, Fat Charlie's life is turned upside down when he finds out that his father has died and the brother he never knew he had, Spider, moves in with him. Spider is a trouble-maker and quickly wears out his welcome, sleeping with Charlie's fiancee, getting him fired, and more. When Charlie decides to fight back, he discovers that his father was actually the god Anansi (which explains why people Charlie has just met call him "Fat Charlie" even though he's no longer fat - his father called him that once, and the names he gives things just tend to stick). Charlie's life gets even more complicated, but these discoveries also allow him to grow into his own power. Viewers who liked Stranger Than Fiction's tone and the way it layers weird events on top of a man's formerly ordinary life might enjoy this quirky book. Charlie, like Harold, starts off with a boring life and eventually learns how to loosen up.
  • A Dirty Job (book) by Christopher Moore - In this book full of both hilarious and poignant moments, recently widowed Charlie Asher does his best to take care of his used goods store and raise his young daughter. He soon discovers that he is a Death Merchant. When a person dies, their soul goes into an object that was important to them. A Death Merchant must find that object before some very unsavory creatures do and make sure it comes into the possession of someone else, someone right. Death Merchants aren't supposed to be in contact with each other, and it's very bad if they don't find the objects they're supposed to find in time. When things start going wrong, Death Merchants start to die, the end of the world becomes a possibility, and Charlie has to figure out how to make things right again. Viewers who enjoyed Stranger Than Fiction's calm handling of death, its tone, and its mix of seriousness and humor might like this book.
  • The Eyre Affair (book) by Jasper Fforde - In an alternate universe, Thursday Next is an operative in the Literary Division of the Special Operations Network. Her latest case involves finding someone who's been stealing characters from the original manuscripts of beloved works of literature, thereby removing those characters from all copies of those works. Viewers who liked Stranger Than Fiction's scenes about literature may enjoy this book.
  • Fushigi Yuugi: Mysterious Play (manga) by Yuu Watase; Fushigi Yuugi: Mysterious Play (anime TV series) - Miaka is an ordinary middle school student (things are different in Japan, so Miaka is actually 15 years old, rather than 14 or younger) who wants nothing more than some tasty snacks and to be accepted into the same high school as her best friend (who, unfortunately for Miaka, has much better grades than she does - getting into the same high school is going to be tough). When she visits the National Library with her friend, she stumbles upon the book The Universe of the Four Gods and gets sucked into the story. She becomes the priestess of Suzaku, protected by her Celestial Warriors. If she can find all seven of her Celestial Warriors, she will be able to summon Suzaku and go home. Viewers who liked the idea of someone being inside a story might like this series. As Miaka goes about her business in The Universe of the Four Gods, others, usually her brother or her best friend, read about her adventures as she has them. Later on, the young man Miaka falls for finds out that he's a character in a story and has to deal with the crushing feeling that he's not actually real. If you have a choice between the manga or the anime, I suggest the manga - it makes it easier to skim through Miaka's whinier or "idiot young girl" moments, and you don't have to deal with Miaka's annoying voice actors (both the Japanese and English voices for Miaka are pretty grating).
  • The Truman Show (live action movie) - Truman lives a perfect, '50s sort of life. Unfortunately, what he doesn't know is that his whole life is fake, a reality TV show that people have been watching since he was born. Little things start arousing his suspicions, however, and Truman first begins trying to figure out what's going on, and then how to break free. As with Stranger Than Fiction, viewers get to see someone (in this case, Jim Carrey) who's not known for his serious films in a serious role. Like Ferrell, Carrey does a wonderful job. Viewers who liked the strangeness of and touching moments in Stranger Than Fiction might like this film.

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