Friday, May 11, 2007

Movie Review: Stranger Than Fiction

Years ago I took a college course on death and dying. It explored not only death of the body but also death of the soul. In fact we spent more time exploring the latter. The premise was that each and every one of our bodies must die someday and perhaps our minds or souls along with them, but we can keep ourselves fully alive psychologically until that day comes.

I just saw a movie that I take to be about psychological death and resurrection. It is Stranger Than Fiction. It features Will Farrell as an IRS auditor who lives his life and does his job with all the joie de vive of an obsessive-compulsive drone until he is shaken out of his numbing routine by hearing a voice out of nowhere narrating his drearily monotonous life like an author composing a story. In fact he discovers that he IS a character in a story still being written and who is about to meet his demise just as soon as the author (Emma Thompson) devises a clever way to kill him off. And because he has just crossed paths with a woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal) he cannot stop thinking about and who gives him reason to live, he goes to visit a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman) to find out who the author is so that he can persuade her to keep him alive.

I do not pretend to understand the deep meaning of this movie fantasy, if there is one. Just as my shallow brain has extreme difficulty understanding poetry, so I also struggle inordinately to decipher the abstract meanings of stories in books and films. I am stuck in their concrete details and befuddled when those details do not cohere. For instance how can a fictional character in a manuscript physically interact in the real world with real people including the author? It makes no literal sense. And yet I felt a depth of emotional involvement in this character's life and plight that I seldom feel when watching a movie. And I came away from the experience feeling quite moved emotionally and a little, if ineffably, wiser about life, death, love, art, and the potentially liberating effect of self-awareness.

I give this film an "A-" and heartily recommend it to anyone who reads this review.


Tom said...

Yo, Steve.

I think you make a good point, that Stranger Than Fiction was a commentary of psychological death. You are, doubtless, getting as much out of the film as there was. I'm not sure why you think you're missing anything.

This type of movie is having its heyday. The most notable screenwriter of this genre film is Charlie Kaufmann who wrote Being John Malkavich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind et al.

First, the audience has to accept an impossible situation that the protagonist is placed in, and, often, as is the case here, no scientific-type explanation for it is given. Unlike mainstream science fiction, the situation ISN'T what is of interest; it is wholly the situation and the challenge it gives the characters.

The trick in writing this type film is for it not to be science fiction, but to take place in something closely akin to reality.

My favorite movie of his type, that started the boon I think, is Groundhog Day from 1993. Here, the protagonist is caught in a timeloop, that is unexplained, and has to deal with, suffer from and, finally, learn from, his challenge. Neither the time loop is explained nor is his escaping from it.

These are sort of like brilliant, movie-length Twilight Zone episodes, but without being rather self-congratulatory, as Rod Serling was with his TV Show, laying on a thick layer of foreboding.

Enjoyment from STF or from GHD or from BJM, for most viewers, comes solely from vicariously going through Will Farrell's/Bill Murray's/John Cusack's character's experience and dealing with the challenges.

Getting more from it, and understanding the psychological and philosophical underpinings, is the toy surprise in the Cracker Jack box.

These underpinings are endlessly debatable [usually] since the screenwriting is delving into the dark of his mind, just accepting the craziness that comes forth. This film, like the others of its wonderful ilk, is fodder for college upperclassmen's term papers.

Anyway. That's my take.

-- Tom

Nagarjuna said...

Hi, Tom.

I have not seen those other films you mentioned, but I think I want to.

You raise an interesting issue for me. Do the directors of these films and the authors of their screenplays actually intend to present a coherent figurative message (or several levels of coherent figurative messages) with their literal stories, and, if so, do they succeed?

Maybe I did get as much from "Stranger Than Fiction" as was there. Or maybe I missed the whole point (or series of points) of the story. I don't know.

I did as you say and vicariously experienced situations through the lead character. Beyond that, I saw one of the points of the film as being that increased self-awareness (symbolized by the author character's narration) can disrupt our numbing routines and make us more fully alive and open to the world and that psychotherapy (symbolized by the lead character's interaction with the literature professor)can help us foster and benefit from this self-awareness.

Maybe there's more to be derived from the film than what I got. But I guess what I got from it was better than nothing. I really enjoyed the film and DO feel better off for having seen it. Now it's time to place those other films you mentioned in my Netflix cue.

Mary Lois said...

Steve, I second tom's recommendations, and agree with him that you needn't feel deficient if a so-called meaning of a movie isn't clear to you. Movies today are often designed to keep the audience from understanding, as if being obscure were more impressive than telling a story. They play with time, as in "Eternal Sunshine," reality (Being JM), and I can't even remember how many rabbit trails there were in Adaptation, but I simply enjoyed the ride. Sometimes it's fun to see such films with friends so that you can discuss different interpretations afterward...but sometimes it's better to see them alone and just absorb what you can. I just saw Volver, which is a powerful little movie, full of Spanish mysticism and death symbols -- but successful as a chick-flick about a family of women, one of whom is the beauteous Penelope Cruz.

Somebody once asked Count Basie to explain jazz; his answer was, "Just pat your feet."

Tom said...


You don't need my help to find good movies, but I would be fascinated to know what you think of Charlie Kaufmann movies. They *seem* very complicated, with the plot ranging all over the place, but there is always a 'pull' in them, a direction they're heading and they make a crazy kind of sense, consistant with the weird, impossible premise you have to accept.

Groundhog Day is variously claimed as a great Buddhist or Christian movie, even though it *seems* to be a rather silly, common situation comedy. There are similarities with Stranger Than Fiction in that the protagonist is forced by his unique situation to deal with issues of the meaning of life, death, love, and learning that making someone else happy is how you make yourself happy.

Nagarjuna said...

Mary Lois, I hear what you're saying about how many of today's movies and stories in general may be purposely obscure in their literal incoherence, and you may well be correct.

However, I'm not sure that I found or would find yesterday's more coherent movies and stories any more intelligible on anything other than a strictly literal level, even if they had other levels of meaning to them. Certainly great novels of the past had levels of figurative meaning, but I am largely blind to them.

Perhaps this is why I have so much trouble with Christianity. I reject many of the passages of scripture on a literal level and, consequently, the institutional teachings that emanate from them, and I cannot divine the truths that are alleged to lie beneath the literal surface of these passages.

At times I still find this exceedingly frustrating. But less so and less often than I used to. I don't know if this reflects growing wisdom or growing resignation to the inescapable. Or is there really a difference between the two?

I'm adding "Volver" to my queue, and I guess I'll just go on "patting my feet." :-)

Tom, when I see those other movies, I'll probably say something about them right here. And I think your take on one of the themes of "Stranger Than Fiction" is spot on.