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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

Over the years that I’ve been a customer at the Essex Cinemas I’ve gotten to know the staff and managers quite well and consider many of them good friends. Like any friends, we’ve swapped stories of our lives back and forth and there have been more times than I can remember that I’ve had various people suggest that I should write a book about my life because it has been (to them) so unusual. I have always thought that was a peculiar idea because to me my life was what it was ~ nothing more or less ~ than anybody else’s. It never occurred to me to compare my experiences to anybody else’s, and growing up I just assumed every family had a serial killer, a busload of alcoholics, a mental patient here and there, conjoined twins and a pedophile or two showing up to Thanksgiving dinner. How was I to know differently? So now when I have people tell me that my life should be a book or a movie I tell them nobody would believe me if I told the whole story anyway because it truly is Stranger Than Fiction, and a great new film now playing at the Essex Cinemas with that same name comes close to touching on what I mean.

Stranger Than Fiction stars Will Ferrell in his first truly dramatic role as IRS auditor Harold Crick, a stable, albeit lonely, man who lives alone and considers only one co-worker as his friend. He is run by a schedule of his own making, and his every day is as regulated as it can be, down to the number of strokes he makes while brushing his teeth. It is interesting to see Ferrell playing down his usual goofy characterizations and being the “normal” guy for once. While fans of his low-brow
comedies like Wedding Crashers and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby will no doubt be disappointed by this more mature seeming Ferrell, it affords him an opportunity to prove that in the right vehicle and with him keeping his clothes on for once, he has the magnetism, looks, and demeanor to be a romantic leading man instead of just a pratfall comedian or comic fool. Anyway, Ferrell does have his moments of humor in the movie, to be sure, but the underlying problem he faces is a serious one. He starts hearing a voice.

The voice is not telling him what to do, but it is narrating his life as he is living it, which is both very distracting and also a bit scary. Is he going crazy, he wonders? A trip to a psychiatric specialist, Dr. Mittag-Leffler, played by the sadly underused Linda Hunt (Yours, Mine and Ours), leaves poor Harold feeling worse than ever as she immediately diagnoses him with schizophrenia and wants to put him on medication. Harold isn’t convinced, and so he ends up going to see an English professor next (because that is such a natural chain of events while looking for the source of a cure, I suppose?). Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman; The Lost City) is fascinated, but he insists he is too busy to get involved in Harold’s drama. That is until he is reminded of something the voice has said to Harold, a literary key, as it were, that opens the door to his curiosity and draws him in as Harold’s new confidant and guide.

Unknown to Harold, the audience is privy to a second tale taking place across town, where famed reclusive writer Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson; Nanny McPhee) is agonizing over a book she has been slowly writing for years. Her publisher has become so frustrated over her missing deadlines for its’ release that it has sent her an executive assistant, Penny Escher (Queen Latifah; Last Holiday), to ride herd on her and get the book done. This is only making matters worse because the gloomy Ms. Eiffel is a chain-smoking, depressed, miserable person to be around, constantly focusing on how best to kill off the heroes of her books because it’s become a tradition that in all her books the main character dies a noble, if senseless, death before the story is over. Unfortunately, the book she is writing now is about the life of a fictional IRS auditor named Harold Crick.

Naturally, the voice that the “real world” Harold has been hearing belongs to Kay, and it does indeed seem that everything she writes about her version of Harold seems to happen to the real one almost instantaneously, even though neither party is aware of it. The driving force then is for “our” Harold to find out about Kay and “her” Harold before she figures out how she wants to kill him off. This is one time “writer’s block” may be a true blessing, at least for Harold.

Stranger Than Fiction is definitely that. The collision of the disparate worlds of writer Thompson
and “normal” guy Farrell offers viewers some immediate laughs but these turn quickly to pathos as we see how such a revelation affects the writer, who has hidden away from life for so long. For Harold, this threat of death hanging over his head has also had an incredible effect on how he looks at his own rigid lifestyle and how it has kept him from letting himself love the woman he wants to be able to open up to. Maggie Gyllenhal (World Trade Center) plays Ana Pascal, the object of Harold’s affections, and she adds an entirely other layer of confusion and excitement to the mix as she is a loud, tattooed, anarchy-loving baker who also happens to be in trouble with the IRS for refusing to pay a portion of her taxes on the principle that she does not want to support the military. If ever there was a diametrically-opposed opposite to Farrell’s wound-tight Crick, it has to be her Pascal. With that in mind, you just know they are going to work things out… as long as Harold doesn’t die.

Therein lies the problem. The book could, according to Dr. Hilbert and Penny, be Kay’s
masterpiece, the book to win her a place in history along side the greats. There is only one problem. For that to happen, the only way for the plot to work and resolve itself the way it is meant to is for Harold to die. And so Harold is given the manuscript to read and make his own decision about what to do.

Now, I don’t think my life story would elicit such excitement by any means, but it is interesting to dream about what it would look like on the big screen. I’d like to imagine someone like Annette Bening or Virginia Madsen playing me in my present tense, but I’m afraid Hollywood would more likely opt for casting my role with someone like Dame Edna instead, so it might be best if I keep my secrets to myself and just enjoy the dramas of others as they spill out on the screens of the
Essex Cinemas. Oh well, C’est la vie! Life really can be Stranger Than Fiction!

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