When an actor like Will Ferrell does comedy, we’re focused on his actions, his lumbering gait, his flailing limbs, his harsh voice. But when an actor like Ferrell does drama, we’re looking at his eyes. Stranger Than Fiction sinks because of Ferrell’s eyes. They are black, and lifeless, like a shark. To adapt a Woody Allen line, Ferrell must constantly move to survive. If you put him in a chair and have him shed tears opposite Dustin Hoffman, he dies. And so does the movie.
In this post-Kaufman world, Stranger Than Fiction feels late. I’d rather have seen it in 1989 starring Tom Hanks, the king of acting credibly and lovably in a fantastic situation (see: Big). In Stranger Than Fiction, a disembodied voice begins narrating Ferrell’s life. That voice belongs to a famous author, who’s writing a novel about Ferrell’s character. This is not a spoiler – it’s been roundly revealed in every trailer for months. And that’s part of the problem. If I had known nothing about the movie going in, I would’ve enjoyed it more. It would’ve been the film’s one surprise.
Instead, we get a mainstream movie that thinks it has a genius idea. What it has is the most conventional plot imaginable, with some flashy drapery. And you can remove Emma Thompson from the Oscar short list. A manic-depressive novelist is a role she was born to play. Someday someone will actually write a good manic-depressive novelist role for her.