Monday, April 16, 2007

Scribbler Flicks

...Wherein we continue the Week of Snark by dissing the new Will Ferrell vehicle, Stranger Than Fiction. We rented this because it's about a lady writing a novel, but were kind of taken aback by its lameness. Emma Thompson is a "great" novelist who has writer's block--she can't figure out how to kill off her main character, a tactic for which she is famous. Will Ferrell is her main character, an IRS auditor who slowly comes to realize he's in a novel. Dustin Hoffman is an English professor with horrible taste, and Maggie Gyllenhall is the implausible love interest.

Where to begin? The plot is dumb, of course--we never learn how it is that Will Ferrell managed to live a whole life without having been in the novel before, and why everyone else he knows has had real lives, and how it is that Emma Thompson herself is alive, and real, in the same world as that of the novel she's writing. And any interesting metafictional issues these contradictions might raise are, of course, conspicuously absent. But what really chafes is Emma Thompson--not her performance, which is about as good as can be under the circumstances, but what passes for the writer's life. She's "blocked," you see, there in her completely bookless apartment, which in this movie means she's got the whole novel finished except she just can't think of a good way to kill the main character. Has anyone ever in the history of writing ever suffered from such a problem? It's what dreadful writers think--that all they need is a good idea, and the rest will come naturally. Meanwhile, ideas are a dime a dozen, and it's writing itself that's hard. The book itself--the one Will Ferrell is a character in--is spoken aloud throughout the movie, and is about the worst thing imaginable--cutesy, awkward, cliche-ridden drivel that features a magic wristwatch. This doesn't stop Dustin Hoffman from thinking it's a work of genius, though.

Which leads me to the worst part. See, Emma Thompson's publisher is so concerned about her "block" that they hire an assistant, played by Queen Latifah, to help her finish. How quaint! A world in which a publisher actually gives a flying fuck whether a "literary" writer ever writes another word in her life. What next, a just war? A free and fair election? Gun control?

If you're dying to check out some writers on the screen, you're better off with A Fine Madness, in which Sean Connery plays a frustrated poet, and Jean Seberg the shrink who loves him. (And who is, incidentally, Rhian's favorite actress.) Connery's poet really does seem like a poet to me--his performance is hilarious and spot on. I'm partial to David Cronenburg's Naked Lunch, as well, particularly Judy Davis, and of course the hideous insectile typewriter and talking butt. And I even got a pretty good kick out of Secret Window, which, while not great, has Johnny Depp and John Turturro in it, and is based on a Stephen King story, which means at any rate that it has an OK plot. I liked The Squid And The Whale, too, although Laura Linney was criminally underused in it.

I'm sure there are others, but when you get down to it, there's a problem with writers as subjects for film drama that's hard to overcome. Writers are boring. Books are interesting.

13 comments:

Jonathan said...

I kind of like Barton Fink. Possibly bad writers make more interesting subjects for films than good ones. But I guess the film has to know that they're bad. (That sounds like the problem with Stranger Than Fiction that you've just described.) I like how if you listen closely, the last line of Barton's masterpiece, his screenplay about a wrestler, is exactly the same as the last line of his play from the beginning of the movie: "We'll be hearing from that crazy wrestler--and I don't mean a postcard."

It's a silly movie, but good for a few laughs.

Jonathan said...

I meant to put "masterpiece" in quotation marks.

Burl Veneer said...

Bad Charlie Kaufman. (But I loved the architecture of his buddy's apartment.)

How about... Barfly?

jrlennon said...

I haven't seen Barfly, but I LOVE Barton Fink. I forgot all about that one.

gnomeloaf said...

There was one scene I really liked in Stranger than Fiction, though. It was when the Emma Thompson character actually meets Will Ferrell for the first time. She's speechless for a minute, and then she starts just looking at him...takes his hands and admires them. I thought that was more astute than much of the rest of the movie -- writers spend so much time inside main characters' heads, of course one would marvel at a real exterior.

jrlennon said...

Yes, and I should add that I liked Emma Thompson's quirk of furtively putting out her cigarettes in spit-soaked snot rags. Rhian suggested, astutely I think, that it was likely to be a detail the actress brought to the movie herself...

zoe said...

What about The Royal Tenenbaums? There is both a novelist (Owen Wilson's character) and a dramatist (played by Gwyneth Paltrow). Again though what's good about their characters is their awfulness. I particularly like Wilson sending his reviews to Paltrow's adoptive mother to bolster his confidence. I also like the fact that, because he writes cowboy/indian novels, he dresses like a cowboy and takes peyote.

Anonymous said...

Wonder Boys!

5 Red Pandas said...

I watched about 20 minutes of "Morvern Callar" which is based on a novel. The premise is that after her bf kills himself the protagonist takes his finished manuscript and gets it published...under her own name. I didn't finish the movie because it's a Scottish film and I honestly couldn't understand the dialogue. We actually tried to see if the DVD had an English subtitle option, but alas it did not.

Matthew said...

Mention Stephen King but forget The Shining and Misery? Also, Christopher Nolan's Insomnia was pretty good. The Lost Weekend is about a writer with a different sort of block (joke: Two drunks come out of a showing of The Lost Weekend, both shaken. First one says, "That's it! I've had my last drink." Second one says, "That's it! I've seen my last movie."). More fertile territory with movies about screenwriters like Sunset Blvd, Contempt, etc. Include journalists and you've got a lot more.

Anonymous said...

That thing about incomprehensible Scottish accents cracks me up!

jrlennon said...

Pandas, invite Zoe over to translate, she lives in Scotland...

The Shining and Misery, duh!

Wing said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who got why this movie is supposed to be good... everyone else raves about it, but I just don't get it.

The ONLY thing I like is the soundtrack mostly provided by the Austin band Spoon.