Portions of this review appear in our review of the 'Stranger Than Fiction' Special Edition Blu-ray.
Portions of this review appear in our review of the 'Stranger Than Fiction' Special Edition Blu-ray.
The history of cinema is littered with comedic performers desperate to make the transition to the ranks of Serious Actor. Just look at Jim Carrey -- as massive a superstar as he is, his continued attempts to snag an Oscar ('The Truman Show,' 'Man on the Moon,' etc.) come off more as desperate than sincere. But every once in a while, there comes along a Will Ferrell, an actor who almost seems as if he fell into the funny business by accident. He's an inspired comedian, of course, but there has always been an underlying pathos, a real humanity to him that transcends mere yuks. Maybe it is the way he lifts one eye like a puppy dog, or how his mouth always seems on the verge of an uncontrollable smirk, that hints at something deeper and darker lurking underneath.
In 'Stranger Than Fiction,' Ferrell finds a vehicle that brings his dramatic skills to the fore. He stars as Harold Crick, lowly IRS agent, and obsessive-compulsive hypochondriac. To say his life up until this point has been "ordered" would be an understatement. But today, he is about to find his entire world (including his own sanity) in dire question. It seems that famous author Karen Effiel is writing her latest novel about an isolated man, who just happens to be named... Harold Crick. Soon he begins to hear Karen's voice as she narrates her new book, detailing everything that Harold is thinking and feeling. Branded a schizophrenic by his therapist (Linda Hunt), Harold turns to a literary professor (Dustin Hoffman), who suggests not to deny the voices -- but to use them to discover what his life story is really about. This epiphany will lead Harold into a relationship with a most unusual bakery owner, Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and a host of other life-altering events. Unfortunately for Harold, Karen Effiel already has the ending to her novel in mind -- she's planning to kill him off.
'Stranger Than Fiction' has been compared to the literary works of Charlie Kaufman ('Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,' 'Being John Malkovich'), and it's easy to see why. Zach Helm's script, like all of Kaufman's efforts, combines an utterly surreal concept, quirky characters, existentialist drama, and loopy jumps in space, time and sometimes logic. But Helm is no mere impersonator. Kaufman, like Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch before him, was certainly not the first to use surrealism in mainstream cinema. And while he may have a similar form, Helm has a entirely different sensibility, bringing an underlying sweetness to 'Stranger Than Fiction.' The story mines gentle comedy out of the inherent nihilism of the human condition (none of us are getting out of here alive, after all) and does it with warmth and compassion rather than arch post-modernism and self-conscious irony.
Perhaps the film failed to ignite the box office because audiences were expecting a far more typical, raucous Ferrell comedy, a la 'Talladega Nights.' 'Stranger Than Fiction' is certainly no light-hearted farce. The crises and questions that arise for Harold are challenging, not only for him (admittedly, he is a rather dim bulb) but for us. They are also timely. Never before have our lives been so regimented, fractured and over-analyzed. Crick is the Everyman for the new millennium, and while certainly a distortion magnified to a high degree, I found his growing panic at the realization that his life is already laid out for him, with minimal contribution on his own behalf, exceptionally poignant.
Happily (and somewhat uniquely) film's conclusion doesn't cheat its core themes. I won't spoil it by saying anymore, as the film's effectiveness entirely rests upon our surprise. Perhaps that is what is so exciting about a film like 'Stranger Than Fiction' -- that frisson between our bewilderment at where this story could possibly go, and our complete faith that writer Helm and director Marc Forster ('Finding Neverland,' 'Monster's Ball') know exactly where they are taking us every step of the way. In this day and age of predictable plots and phoned-in TV dramedy, 'Fiction' at least dares to be an original.
All of the performances in the film are standouts. Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman are givens, although they have been given the most thankless task in the script, which is to basically serve as narrators for an inner world that Harold can't verbalize. And though Queen Latifah shines in a surprisingly limited role, it is Maggie Gyllenhaal who shines most luminous. I admire her complete lack of condescension towards a character who, on the surface, is utterly ordinary. Somehow Gyllenhaal finds a depth and beauty in her simplicity, so much so that her attraction to Ferrell defies any preconceptions regarding age. This is an attraction of the heart, mind and spirit, not just the body.
And Ferrell, of course, has to carry the entire picture on his wide shoulders, and never falters. Rare have I seen a performance that conveys so much inner trauma with such little physical movement. His eyes may be a character unto themselves -- expressive and emotive, they tell us all we need to know in an instant. It is the kind of "acting" that is not acting at all, but simply being. As Hoffman praises in one of this disc's featurettes, even he was caught off-guard by how in-the-moment Ferrell was, and it's obvious on-screen. He is 'Fiction's true heart, and by taking such a risk and succeeding so admirably here, he has become just about the only comedic actor I'd pay to see in a drama without hesitation.
'Stranger Than Fiction' is not the type of film one would expect to be prime HD demo material. But I'm glad Sony has released it on Blu-ray, as the format really needs a bit more variety beyond action flicks. This 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer is nicely done, although of course I have some caveats.
Having missed the film during its theatrical run, I can't speak for how it looked projected on celluloid, but the transfer has obviously been tweaked for this Blu-ray presentation. Contrast has been heightened, which gives the image a slightly washed-out and digital look (which I'm not really a fan of). Colors are a bit undersaturated, too, perhaps even dour. However, stylistically this works well for the material, as we are talking about a manic-depressive schizophrenic here. Darker scenes look a bit more natural, with a pleasing, warm glow. The flashback sequences also are brighter and more colorful, especially fleshtones which are more flush with orange. Detail holds up nicely throughout, with a nice sense of depth and fine textures visible. Skintones aren't helped much by the post-processing, with all of the cast looking a bit artificial, as if every single one of their pores has been accentuated. There are no compression artifacts, however, nor any obnoxious edge enhancement.
Overall, 'Stranger Than Fiction' on Blu-ray is a solid, good-looking presentation.
Sony continues to support uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround tracks on their Blu-ray releases, and 'Stranger Than Fiction' no exception. In all honesty, with so many issues with hardware compatibility on the Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Lossless Audio formats, I'm starting to wish all the studios would just go PCM on everything. It certainly would make things easier. And you can't really fault uncompressed audio, can you?
Anyway, 'Stranger Than Fiction' doesn't benefit much from high-resolution audio, regardless of format. It's soundtrack is comprised of a good deal of dialogue, some music, a few minor sound effects, and that's all. But I liked the airy sparseness, which sets the perfect mood for the narrative, even if it doesn't provide any sonic fireworks. Surrounds are sparse, with a bit of score/song bleed and maybe a slim discrete effect here or there. The track is front-directed, and the star of the show -- dialogue -- is perfectly clear. I had no problems with volume imbalances, and fidelity is good. Low bass is present but never distracting, and the rest of the frequency spectrum has a warm, pleasing tone.
This Blu-ray release carries over the same extras found on the standard-def DVD release. At first, they seem a bit disappointing -- no audio commentary, only some featurettes and deleted scenes. Upon closer examination, however, the level and depth of the making-of material is superior, so the lack of a commentary or a plethora of other goodies is not particularly detrimental. (Note that all of the bonus features are presented in 1080p/MPEG-2 video. However, it appears to be a 480 upconvert, which is most noticeable in the film clips, which look no better than DVD-quality.)
'Actors in Search of a Story' (18 minutes) kicks things off, and it is a solid overview of the film's characters and casting. Will Ferrell gets most of the attention, including flattering (though not fawning) interview comments from director Marc Forster, screenwriter Zach Helm, producer Lindsay Doran (who quite frankly looks like one of those crazy auditioners on 'American Idol') and fellow cast members, including Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Queen Latifah, Linda Hunt and a holy-cow-did-he-get-fat Tom Hulce. Oddly, though, Ferrell himself appears only very, very briefly here (and is just about invisible on the other featurettes, too).
The same participants (plus a few tech folks) appear in the next three segments, all of which focus on the on-set production challenges. "Building the Team" (9 minutes) chronicles the development of the script and the assembling of the creative team, primarily what it took to attract Forster, who at the time was red-hot after 'Monster's Ball' and 'Finding Neverland.' "On Location in Chicago" (10 minutes) is just as it sounds -- an ode to filming in the Windy City (and my hometown, *cough*), while "On the Set" (3 minutes) is a short montage of behind-the-scenes footage, set to a cheesy, bad Euro-trash underscore.
"Words on a Page" (9 minutes) may be the most insightful featurette. I loved Helm's script, which channels the best of Charlie Kaufman but doesn't feel like pastiche, or a pretentious homage. Here we get solid insight on Helm's approach, his love of '70s comedies, and desire to do something that is commercial yet intelligent. Lastly we have "Picture a Number: The Evolution of a G.U.I." (17 minutes). Though overly long, it dissects the film's visual look, including its use of graphical overlays, and Forster's approach to creating surreality through visual metaphor.
Though dubbed as "Deleted & Extended Scenes," there are really only two, both fictitious "Book Channel Interviews" with the characters Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) and Peter Alan Prothero (played by Kevin Tod Haug, the film's Visual Effects Supervisor). Fairly amusing stuff, but these seem more like outtakes than proper deleted scenes. Combined, they run ten minutes total, and are presented in 1080p video (although since the quality is intentionally "video-esque," the specs don't really matter in this case.)
'Stranger Than Fiction' is a smart, intriguing and often moving comedy that is full of surprises, warm characters and genuine insight into the human condition. I loved it. This Blu-ray release supports the film well, with a good transfer and fitting soundtrack, and a solid (if still somewhat sparse) batch of supplements. I can easily recommend the disc for purchase if you're already a 'Fiction' fan -- otherwise, if you're curious (or are hearing voices in your head) definitely give it a rent.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.