With the success of "Monster's Ball" (2001) and "Finding Neverland" (2004) behind him, director Marc Forster has established himself as a critic's and awards darling, if not necessarily a major cinematic artist. Thus, in "Stranger Than Fiction," he created a sugary confection that sufficiently pleased critics and audiences alike by delivering exactly what they want to see, but he failed to push any boundaries. What makes this so frustrating is that this film has great potential, but it just fails to go where other, better, films have gone before, making it a major disappointment and a largely wasted opportunity.
Will Ferrell stars as Harold Crick, a lonely, obsessive-compulsive IRS auditor whose life is an endless repetition of mundane activity. One morning, while getting ready for work, he hears a woman's voice narrating his morning routine. Unable to figure out where the voice is coming from, he goes to work, but he finds that the voice follows him, continuing to describe everything that he does as he does it. That voice, as it happens, is coming from Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a popular novelist suffering from writer's block. She is currently in the process of writing a book about a man named Harold Crick, who happens to be an IRS auditor, and the real Harold's life seems to be dictated by what she types out on her typewriter. Harold's annoyance turns to outright paranoia when Karen's narration reveals that he is to die in the near future.
After being diagnosed as schizophrenic, Harold seeks advice from Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), a literary expert, to analyze the narrative that he finds himself in. While at first dismissive of the case, Hilbert is eventually drawn in, suggesting that Harold find out whether his narrative is a comedy or a tragedy. He goes about this by pursuing Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a rebellious baker he is currently auditing for deliberately refusing to pay her taxes. Their relationship takes the usual up-and-down wave of romantic comedies, alternating between rejection and acceptance with each scene. Meanwhile, Karen struggles to come up with a creative way for the character of Harold to die. Her own demons have driven her to a life of reclusiveness and macabre obsessions, and she unknowingly transfers her tragic life on Harold through her writing.
The idea is clever enough, but the problem lies in the overall execution. Screenwriter Zach Helm seems to be aiming for the human-observation fantasy of Charlie Kaufman (1999's "Being John Malkovich," 2004's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"), but the movie has none of the soul or character complexity of Kaufman's work. The film as a whole is weighted down by Forster's surface-level excesses—not the least of which are the pretentious computer graphics employed throughout to simulate Harold's mathematical point of view—that cover a hopelessly shallow core. It is clear from the opening zoom shot traveling from a space view of Earth to a close-up of Harold's watch (which is ludicrously positioned as a character in the film but serves mainly as a convenient final contrivance) that the film's visuals are used as a crutch for a decidedly weak story. The concept is basically a patchwork of individual plots, including a conventional romantic comedy, a midlife crisis story, and a woman's search for self meaning, that are held together by a fantasy element that ultimately holds little weight. It is largely reminiscent of "Being John Malkovich," in which a number of unstable characters find happiness through the absurd device of experiencing the world through John Malkovich's point of view. In that film, however, Kaufman and director Spike Jonze understood the absurdity and developed interesting characters who invited audience sympathy. In "Stranger Than Fiction," Helm and Forster take the fantasy much too seriously and reduce their characters to broad strokes.
As a character, Harold is flat and one-dimensional, defined more by his quirky actions and facial expressions than by a believable personality. Will Ferrell's mannered performance does not help the situation. He is much too self-conscious to tap into Harold's inner workings, concentrating more on his awkward physicality. Emma Thompson, too, only goes skin-deep with Karen Eiffel, displaying an assortment of unattractive scowls, fidgety hand movements, and perpetually mussed hair to suggest her character's depression. Queen Latifah plays Karen's assistant, Penny, an utterly superfluous character who does little to serve the story and exists mainly because convention demands that the depressed heroine needs a sidekick. Only Maggie Gyllenhaal manages to transcend the potential annoyances of her character by projecting real warmth and humanity.
In spite of the film's supposedly inventive nature, it is easy to tell where it is heading all along. Even more maddening is that Helm teases us for the last 20 minutes or so by making it seem as though the film might just veer away from what we are expecting. But just when it appears that it may end on a genuinely poignant note, Helm throws us a totally artificial curveball that shatters all hope of redemption. Ironically, Dustin Hoffman's character provides a pretty dead-on commentary on the film once the final twist occurs. Critiquing Karen Eiffel's finished book (which determines the end of the film), he says, "It's okay, it's not bad. It's not the most amazing piece of English literature (substitute "American filmmaking") in several years, but it's okay." That is the best assessment of "Stranger Than Fiction." It could have been great. But it's just okay.
This is Sony Picture Home Entertainment's second Blu-ray edition of "Stranger Than Fiction," and it sports an excellent transfer. The film's 1.85:1 aspect ratio is preserved in anamorphic widescreen. Colors are beautifully saturated throughout, and skin tones are natural. There is some fine grain evident, as well as a few speckles, but they are not distracting and actually lend the image a more film-like quality, which is one of the strengths of high definition. Black levels are very deep. The overall image is clear and crisp. There is a lot of detail present, and with all of the visual effects, "Stranger Than Fiction" greatly benefits from this Blu-ray release.
Audio is also fine in a Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 track. Voices are smooth and clear. There is no hiss to be heard. The score and songs played throughout sound just great, never overpowering but delivered with great energy. In addition to the English track, there are also a French TrueHD 5.1 track and an English Descriptive Service track. English and French subtitles are available.
The first two extras on this release are a pair of commentary tracks that are new to this edition. The first commentary features Marc Forster, Will Ferrell, and Dustin Hoffman. This is definitely an enjoyable listen, as the three joke around with each other. It is not necessarily substantial, but it is very entertaining, and the three clearly have a lot of fun together. The second commentary features Forster, production designer Kevin Thompson, visual effects designer Kevin Howard, director of photography Roberto Schaefer, producer Lindsay Doran, and executive producer Eric Kopeloff. This one is, expectedly, more informative as the group discusses many of the technical details of the film.
Next up are six featurettes that are carried over from the previous release. "Actors in Search of a Story" is a 19-minute look at the casting of the film. The nine-minute "Building the Team" discusses the assembling of the crew. "Words on a Page" offers 10 minutes about the writing of the script. "Picture a Number: The Evolution of G.U.I." is a 17-minute look at the creation of the visual effects. "On the Set" is a three-minute montage of behind-the-scenes footage, mostly of the cast and crew dancing and mugging for the camera. Finally, "On Location in Chicago" provides 11 minutes about the choice to shoot the film in the title city. Collectively, these add up to more than an hour's worth of supplemental material. Some of it is a little on the fluffy side, particularly the first two featurettes, but it is certainly worth the watch. Unfortunately, all of these featurettes are provided in standard definition, non-anamorphic widescreen.
Lastly, there are nine deleted scenes, only two of which were on the previous edition. These are mostly extended clips of the actors improvising on camera. There is some really funny stuff here, especially the extended footage with actress Kristin Chenoweth as a clueless TV interviewer (she is reduced to a blink-or-you'll-miss-it cameo in the final film). These scenes collectively last about 19 minutes.
While it is somewhat distressing to see studios already double-dipping on releases while Blu-ray is still essentially in its infancy, especially with prices still high and so many worthy titles yet to come out, this re-release of "Stranger Than Fiction" does have some nice features that were not present on the first edition. The commentary tracks and additional deleted scenes make this a highly recommended purchase for major fans of the movie. Although I am not personally a fan of the movie, I know many people are, and this Blu-ray Special Edition is certainly the best choice.