Knight at the Movies Archives
Will Ferrell goes the serious route while Ed Harris hams it up
Sooner or later, it seems, comedians who make it big in the movies based on their outlandish physical gifts yearn to stretch their
mettle by doing something serious. Perhaps because there’s something inherently sad in these great clowns to begin with, they
seem drawn to darker material. Robin Williams now makes more dramas than comedies. So does Steve Martin. The list is long in
this department and includes practically everyone from Chaplin to Sandler. Now Will Ferrell is giving it a go. After the frat boy
comedy Old School, the winning Elf, the hilarious and outrageous Anchorman (Ferrell’s shining hour), the over the top The Producers,
the race car parody Talladega Nights, and many others, Ferrell is moving into deeper territory. Unlike the movie’s previous King of
Comedy, Jim Carrey, who plunged into the genre with The Truman Show, Ferrell is gingerly stepping in that direction with the sweetly
morose and sorta funny Stranger Than Fiction.
Set in Chicago – and actually shot here (cue applause) – Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an I.R.S. agent whose life is so well ordered that
he counts the number of brush strokes when brushing his teeth. A man so bland that he doesn’t even like fresh baked cookies. But
like other serious somnambulists, Carrey’s Truman Burbank in The Truman Show and Sandler’s Barry Egan in Punk-Drunk Love, Ferrell
is in for an awakening. Harold Crick’s internal yearning goes into hyper drive, shaking him to the marrow, when he suddenly hears
the voice of the woman who has been narrating the picture for us. This is the caramel voiced Emma Thompson who it turns out is a
depressed, best selling author named Kay Eiffel who always kills off her characters. Crick, her latest invention, it seems, is about to
get a visit from the Grim Reaper. How or when Eiffel has yet to figure out as she’s experiencing writer’s block.
In order to help get her through it and get their book on time, her publisher sends in Penny Escher, an editor designed to get Kay’s
creative juices going again (Queen Latifah in a thankless role). In the meantime, Harold is suddenly dashing about, mixing up his
usual routine, trying anything to stop that voice in his head. He first has a visit with the company psychologist (a funny cameo by
out actor and producer Tom Hulce) and then, for reasons not exactly sound, visits a literature professor played in the usual absent
minded way by Dustin Hoffman.
While Harold tries to figure out whom the voice belongs to and if it’s real, there’s also the distraction of his first real romance with a
baker whose finances he’s been assigned to investigate. This is the vinegary Maggie Gyllenhaal who adds a nice tart touch to all her
scenes and a pinch or two of warmth along with those bake goodies she pushes on Harold (the film’s comedic highlight is the scene
where she gets him to accept one of her baked cookies and a glass of milk before seducing him – it’s a tiny triumph that cuts deep.)
The movie weaves back and forth between this gentle comedy and the Big Questions about life and death that it raises, chugging
along. But at the midpoint, even under the assured direction of Marc Forster whose pictures I have loved (Monster’s Ball, Finding
Neverland), the movie hadn’t really taken hold. Though the last half speeds up, the picture seems to require that not only Ferrell,
but Thompson and Latifah dial down their uncanny ability to connect with an audience. Carol Burnett and Mary Tyler Moore (to a
lesser extent), when strapped into serious roles, have the same misfortune. The weight of the gray skies that permeate the picture
seems to have the effect of dimming down the star wattage of these giant talents. Stranger Than Fiction is likeable enough as are its
players but it disappears immediately when one recalls Ferrell exclaiming “By Zeus’ beard!” in Anchorman, Latifah confessing her
weakness for gay boyfriends to Holly Hunter in Living Out Loud or Thompson in, well, ANYTHING.
Director Agnieszka Holland could have taken a few lessons from Marc Forster and done Ed Harris the favor of dialing down his
scenery chewing performance in Copying Beethoven. This over the top claptrap imagines the last year of the composer’s life.
Inevitable comparisons to Immortal Beloved, the Gary Oldman vehicle will abound, but Oldman didn’t have the misfortune to have a
director shooting his character’s rages and bombast in extreme close up. Seemingly every scene with Harris and his protégé, Anna
Holtz, the comely copyist played by Diane Kruger, is shot with a hand held camera inches from Harris in order to catch every syllable
(and the spittle, apparently) from this deaf drama queen that hears better than someone with perfect pitch. “I am a very difficult
person Anna Holtz but I take comfort in the fact that God made me that way!” and “God infests my head with music!” are just two of
the choice gems he thunders out at his understandably cowed assistant.
The music, naturally, is exquisite, as are the lovely locations (plethora of close-ups aside, the film is gorgeous to look at) and when
Holland allows the material to breathe there are quiet moments of pleasure. But this is a film designed to capture a Great
Performance and, indeed, Harris gives it all he’s got. But it’s the kind of acting that would only be a Must See in the theatre and
even there I suspect some might find this conception of Ludwig van could use a lot less fortissimo and a lot more legato.
Chicago Screening of Note: As part of their ongoing Science Fiction Movies series, the Gene Siskel Film Center is screening one of
the genre’s most terrifying entries, Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien. Aside from its imaginative production design, the film, which introduced
Sigourney Weaver, boasts a terrific supporting cast in John Hurt, Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Koto, and one
of my favorites, the luminous Veronica Cartwright (see my interview with Cartwright about the making of the film). Screens Friday,
November 10 and Tuesday, November 14. Jim Trainor from the Art Institute’s Film Department will lecture and lead a discussion of
the film at the latter screening.
Underplaying and Overplaying:
Stranger Than Fiction-Copying Beethoven
11-8-06 Windy City Times Knight at the Movies Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.