One Character in Search of a Novelist

as always, spoilers abound.1

Man, mix even parts Adaptation and The Wonder Boys, let Will Ferrell shake it, and you’ve got something a lot like Stranger than Fiction. And of course, as all movies about writers of whatever kind have to end, Stranger than Fiction pulls the same trick those two do. Or, that Get Shorty does. So that, when Ebert says that the ending is a compromise, I don’t know: I’m kind of inclined to disagree. Or disinclined to agree, whichever works better for you. But yeah, I mean I agree with him that it’s a very compromised ending — the novelist sacrifices her art for a person (in writer-speak: because she got too attached to her character). And that’s not satisfying. But, too, we have to understand that what we’re watching, it’s nearly got to be that rewritten version the novelist promises to do at the end (thus the Wonder Boys end . . .). Which is to say the compromised version of “Death and Taxes,” where Ferrell’s characters gets to live through his life-affirming sacrifice, it’s embedded/encased within the “Death and Taxes” that we see (‘read’) on-screen, where that living-through is justified. Where it’s been rewritten in such a way that it’s not a compromise. As for textual support for this, just look at the bus-driver, the kid. Early on, Ferrell’s character2 says he suspects there’s all these other stories going on alongside his, that he can’t quite see. And, in the compromised version, the embedded version, sure, there are. But the rewritten version diverges from that, such that those characters become the dimmest of glimpses — almost become the ‘tacked-on’ things themselves.

Anyway, that’s all I really wanted to say. And that it’s good. And, not trying to start anything with Ebert. Truth told, I’d probly bow to his analysis. Also, glad to see him back at it.

As for extra junk concerning Stranger than Fiction, list-style:

  • Yeah, sure, I object to the proposition that all narrators speak as prim and British as Emma Thompson, and hope that America doesn’t let this get foisted on them. Too, however, yeah, I do understand that, for the purpose of the movie, we kind of needed a voice that would function like the inverse of Will Ferrell’s character.
  • That this novelist is up above the city, in that furnitureless apartment — it’s like we’re supposed to read her as, I don’t know: Morgan Freeman’s ‘God’ in Bruce Almighty, yeah? Which is to say that she exists on some other plane, is possibly made up (honestly, for a while I was sure that Latifah’s character was the one with ‘powers’: that she’s conjured up the novelist’s main character, in order to help her complete (ie, ‘visualise’) the story).
  • You don’t really pronounce ‘ogle’ like ‘goggle’ without that first ‘g,’ do you? The long ‘o’ sounds so much more lecherous, I mean. But then I say ‘banal’ the wrong way too. However, on Criminal Intent last week, I was pretty sickened to hear ‘cadge’ pronounced with the long ‘a.’ Wholly insulting. And on some other show ‘tousled’ became ‘towelselled’ somehow. I don’t know. Could be I’m an English teacher or something, I suppose. . .
  • Compulsive counting, a), isn’t bad, and b), in my experience, tends to be the mental whirlpool the novelist is caught in, not the main character. If we need textual rather than anecdotal support for this, check As Good As It Gets maybe.
  • Beautiful, exasperated passage: “I don’t know the rules. I’m just trying to write a book.”
  • Love love love it that Hoffman’s high-faluting lit prof is reading Sue Grafton. Thank you, prop-people, or whoever.
  • It seems to me, really, that writers probably believe in God more often than not, simply because it’s a relationship they understand — it’s what they are to their characters. But I suppose I could be convinced that non-belief, it might be their attempt to write themselves out of the story somewhat. That is, the story becomes more real (‘authentic’) when we’re not just chess pieces, all that.
  • The Sonic commercial guy in that Office Space setting, it pretty much made the whole movie for me.
  • Hoffman’s ‘shoeless’ arc continues: out of the Huckabees and the Fockers, into this. He does it well, too. Doesn’t even need any shame.
  • Stranger Than Fiction has about the coolest closing credits since Running Scared, which itself had the coolest credits since XXX.
  • Maggie Gyllenhall rocks.
  • And yeah, Stranger Than Fiction, it lives up to its title. And that was about the biggest gamble, really.

©Stephen Graham Jones, 2006


1really, though, ‘spoilers’? I mean, if knowing the facts of a movie can ruin it, then there’s maybe a gimmick happening here, right? I mean, sure, The Sixth Sense, The Crying Game, Les Diaboliques, etc, there is a ‘key’ which people who have seen the movie before you can sneak out, mess up your viewing with*, but, too, aren’t the strongest stories those which, in the first paragraph or opening scene, just go ahead and suck the dramatic tension out of the thing by stating, very clearly, that this, that and the other are about to happen? But then they pin you there anyway, somehow. Even though you know X is going to marry Y, or dragon Q is going to eat dude P, whatever. The really accomplished storytellers can do that, I mean. And, their stories, no, there’s not really any way to ‘spoil’ them, I don’t think.

2 I know, I know: would it kill me to imdb the characters’ names here? just in case, I’m not.

  • *the inverse of this, I think — ‘keeping the secret’ — it’s often less about being responsible or ‘caring’ either, but more like . . . like the summer Friday the 13th hit: a lot of its box-office dollars were on repeat viewings, right? Trick was, people who’d seen the thing, who knew about kid-Jason surging up out of the water at the end, they wanted to foist that on the unwitting, to watch them jump, scream, etc. You can say it was about wanting to ‘share’ the jumpscare, but I don’t think that was it at all. Unless ‘sharing’ can be said to mean laughing cruelly at your friend. Which, yeah, I mean: you both do laugh afterwards, so maybe I’m reading this all wrong. It an evil friend, anyway, who doesn’t set you up for that scare, by pretending to be getting his drink or whatever together, gripping the armrests to stand. As for scares liket he floating nun in Exorcist III, man yeah, I kind of wish somebody had whispered to me to get ready. There’d still be some extra years on my life now.