...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.