‘Stranger’ is welcomed 

Interesting plot twists, and more than a one-trick pony.

click to enlarge BRUSH WITH MORTALITY: Farrell in 'Stranger.'
  • BRUSH WITH MORTALITY: Farrell in 'Stranger.'

With screenwriters like Charlie Kaufman increasingly bringing fiction-like twists to big-budget film, many of the stilts of convention that have kept Hollywood movies boring over the years are being kicked out. While the sci-fi and action genres have always been willing to experiment with audience expectations, Kaufman’s “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” made it OK for moviegoers to demand the same kind of thinking-man’s plot from other members of the cinematic family tree.

While not all of those off-the-wall ideas have succeeded, one that does is “Stranger Than Fiction.” Though based around an idea that seems rather hokey on its face, “Stranger” turns out to be a lot more than a one-trick pony. It’s a film with a lot of heart, one that really delivers.

A severely toned-down Will Ferrell stars as Howard Crick, an anal IRS agent with no friends, no life and habits bordering on obsessive-compulsive. One day, while brushing his teeth, Crick starts hearing narration in his head: the voice of a writer’s-blocked British novelist who we later find out is Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson).

Dismissing a diagnosis of schizophrenia, Crick at first tries to ignore the voice, going forward with the audit of spunky baker/love interest Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal). A visit with literature professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) convinces Crick that he’s in fact the main character in Eiffel’s latest novel — a discovery that takes a disquieting turn when the narration announces that Crick will die soon.

While this could have quickly dissolved into a quirky mess in the hands of lesser actors, the entire cast here works well together, all showing their range and talent. Especially good is Gyllenhaal. Watching Ana and Crick overcome their differences to find common ground and then love was one of the sweetest moments I’ve seen on film.

Equally good is Thompson’s performance as the mentally constipated Eiffel. Neurotic, apathetic and unconvinced of her own talent, she’s the encapsulation of every fiction writer I’ve ever met. Her reaction when Crick finally comes calling is pretty much worth the price of a ticket.

Also cool is simply the structure of the film, especially with how it deals with Crick’s by-the-numbers mind. In the early parts of the film, as he moves through life, his compulsion to count and measure everything he encounters is literally projected over his head in a series of white grids, facts and figures that look like a math-phobic’s nightmare. While this, too, could have easily been overly precious, the effect works well here as a way of letting us into Crick’s rather noisy inner life — especially when his daydreams about Pascal, the narrator in his head and his impending death begin to intrude.

Best about “Stranger,” however, is how well the filmmakers draw all the threads together in the end, making a clever and satisfying little film that handily straddles the line between comedy and drama. Sad when it has to be, funny when it has to be, “Stranger Than Fiction” turns out to be an unlikely winner, one that will make even the most cynical moviegoer think about love, life, death and what we do with the time we’ve been given. Up to the second in terms of plot and yet filled with an old-fashioned, Capra-esque sensibility, it’s a real treat. See it soon.


Highly ‘rated’

There are many mysteries in the world: Is there a Loch Ness monster? Is Elvis alive? Who screwed up at Diebold and let the Democrats win this go-round?

One of the mysteries that long has perplexed this reviewer, however, is: Just what is up with the MPAA ratings board — those folks who dole out the G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17? Specifically: How is it that a movie in which people get cut in half with a shrub trimmer receives an R rating, while a perfectly sane drama with a little bit of full-frontal nekkidness gets an NC-17 — a rating that virtually assures the film will get no mass-market distribution?

As seen in the new documentary “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” many people — particularly filmmakers who have felt the sting of NC-17 — have asked the same questions about the MPAA ratings board, an organization cloaked in Illuminati-style secrecy with the power to virtually crush any film they don’t agree with morally or politically.

For his documentary, filmmaker Kirby Dick expands on one of those “Super Size Me” ideas that’s so simple it’s amazing no one has thought of it before: With cameras rolling, he hires a team of private investigators to unravel just who is deciding what Americans can’t see on screen, and why. Over a couple of months he eventually demolishes both the secrecy around the identities of those on the ratings board and the MPAA’s longstanding assurances that the members of the board are “parents” who represent America’s political and social diversity (not to spoil it for you, but most of them, it turns out, are white, heterosexual baby boomers — many of them avowed conservatives). The best part of Dick’s scheme might be that, once he gets done, he submits his film for rating to the very secret cabal that he has just unmasked. (Not to spoil it for you even more, but the result is — you guessed it — the dreaded NC-17. So much for impartiality.)

Even more interesting than the detective story of “TFINYR” are Dick’s chats with directors and filmmakers who have seen their films slapped down by the MPAA board — among them Kevin Smith, Matt Stone, John Waters and “Boys Don’t Cry” director Kimberly Pierce. While they admit their reluctance to anger the board, none of them are shy about their distrust of the studio-bankrolled MPAA and its motives.

Also interesting are side-by-side comparisons of sex scenes that supposedly warranted an NC-17 and those that didn’t.

“TFINYR” does the good work of documentary — shining a light on something that has been hidden from the masses for the benefit of the few. A funny, insightful and daring film, you’ll never watch another American movie the same way after this one.


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