Classic Intel: Stranger Than Fiction - Blu-ray Review

'And then, finally, we reach the twenty-fifth minute mark and what does Forster still have up his sleeve? Oh, nothing. Merely one of Dustin Hoffman's best ever characters'

A bona fide modern classic, Stranger Than Fiction is a post-modern deconstruction of narrative, an assassination of the concept of character, Will Ferrell's best ever performance and a mightily sweet romance to boot. The success of the film is not just that director Marc Forster sees and sympathises with the big ideas in Zach Helm's script, it's that he then finds the ways and means to bring them to the screen in unquestionably humorous and level-headed ways.

The depth of quality on show in the film is summed up by what goes before the twenty-five minute mark. Already, Forster has introduced us to Harold Crick (Ferrell), an IRS investigator living such a mundane life that he counts the strokes of his toothbrush each morning. But Forster doesn't just introduce us to him. Instead, we see Harold running to work, balancing an apple in his mouth. It's a direct reference to The Son of Man (or The Faceless Businessman) by René Magritte and instantly Forster has told us all we need to know about Harold.

Following that, the narration of Harold's life is introduced. Forster plays on it for poignancy, comic effect and shock value but never so much that you question the narrative device or to the point where the film relies on it or overplays it to produce the comedy. 'You're staring at my tits', says Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal), rousing Harold from a dream state induced by listening to the narration. 'Oh... oh... sorry' murmurs Crick. In any other Ferrell film, he'd have been fondling them or commenting on their appearance by scene end. A few scenes later, he actually apologises for the act.

The source of the narration too - and remember, we're still in the first twenty-five minutes - has also been introduced. It's Emma Thompson, first glimpsed by us balancing on the edge of a desk, trying to imagine death-by-falling-from-a-height. There's something God-like about Thompson's frustrated writer, Karen Eiffel. She lives in a high rise for a start, constantly looking down on the other characters. As author of the story she's clearly omnipotent and holds the life and death of her characters - real in this case - in the ink of her typewriter. It's suggested very early on that she is out of touch with humanity, a recluse who, in the first section, is purely concerned with finding a way to kill Harold. If only she could just find a way of knowing him - and humanity - better, perhaps she could stave off her murderous ink blots...

And then, finally, we reach the twenty-fifth minute mark and what does Forster still have up his sleeve? Oh, nothing. Merely one of Dustin Hoffman's best ever characters, Jules Hilbert, a laconic, caffeine-addicted literature professor who attempts to find out what sort of story Harold is in and finally, towards the end of film, decides with a completely straight face that Crick, 'has to die'. Dramatic convention dictates it.

Forster's Stranger Than Fiction hits the trifecta. It's entertaining and endearingly so, with warm wit and romance beyond the typical Hollywood Rom-Com. It's clever, the meta-narrative is at least equal with something like Adaptation but never in a smug, self-aggrandising way; the ideas aren't the focus here, they're merely drivers for the characters. And it's also ambitious, something sorely lacking in the Rom-Com genre, for which Hollywood should be ashamed of itself. All that, and we're still only twenty-five minutes in to one of the best films the 21st Century has so far produced.

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