Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Giving postmodernism a bad name: Zach Helm's Stranger Than Fiction

Stranger Than Fiction (Marc Forster, 2006) is Zach Helm's first major script adapted onto the big screen.

Who's this Zach Helm guy, you say?

He's a 31 year old up-and-comer who's buzzed to death in Hollywood. If you have ever browsed through glossy Hollywood magazines such as Vanity Fair or Fade In , you'll likely to have encountered some "It/Golden Boy" slanted piece about him, lauding him for his visionary genius and his classy pedigree (playwright-cum-screenwriter-cum-Lucy Liu's ex-fiance-cum-newly-annointed-writer/director).

I'm sure Zach Helm is a nice guy, in spite of such Tinseltown hype (I mean, it's not all his fault, really). But in the wake of all that buzz, I can't help but want to dispel - right here and now - the notion that Helm is the Second Coming. If Stranger Than Fiction is evocative of anything, it's that Helm is basically a third-rate Charlie Kaufman.

Stranger Than Fiction is a film that gives postmodernism a bad name - it's literally and figuratively about nothing. The film revolves around an IRS agent/lonesome semi-sad sack named Harold Crick (played by Will Farrell) and his inevitable discovery one day that his life is narrated by Emma Thompson's novelist, Kay Eiffel, who appears to be suffering from a bad case of writer's block.

The big catch to Stranger Than Fiction is that Ms. Eiffel will - sooner or later - kill off Harold. She does that to all her characters, as Dustin Hoffman's literary professor/Harold's literature consultant point out. (That last "quip" by the Hoffman character was supposed to be funny, by the way, but I neither smiled nor laughed).

The problem with Stranger Than Fiction is that Helm's script is full of quips and quirks that don't amount much to anything, really. Harold goes to Hoffman's Professor Jules Hilbert, where a bunch of self-complacent "ha ha, ain't I smart?" quips are set in place. Hoffman tells Harold to find out if his story is being concocted as a tragedy or a comedy. Cues the next sequence, where he meets up with Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the woman he will be auditing and secretly harboring a crush upon. By the end of the evening, Harold, pen and pad in hand, has more tallies under "tragedy" than "comedy".

Or consider another quippy moment when the ol' wise Professor advises Harold to call in sick the following day and do nothing, as means to figure out if Harold's life is really plot-devised. Cues another "hilarious" sequence, where one moment, Harold is peacefully watching the TV amidst ringing phones, and the next, a bull-dozer heads for his living room - where Harold is sitting as of that moment! It's not so much amusing as it is ridiculously twee in its supposed comedy.

To be fair, Helm does, every once in a while, attempt to tie up his meta-narrative with some lasting themes -it's just that he fails every time. The control novelist Kay Eiffel has upon Everyman Harold is, as more readily apparent in the second half, supposed to be a reflection upon Our (as in me, you, and everyone in the audience) overwhelming dependence upon standardized time and scheduling.

Take for example, the whole wrist watch metaphor. As Thompson's cumbersome narration informs us, Harold lives by his watch - time is his life. He brushes his teeth a designated amount of brush strokes, arrives at the bus stop just at the right moment, etc. But one day when Harold accidentally switches his watch to a few minutes late (thanks to a businessman stranger's ill-informed stopwatch), he bumps (again) into the love of his life, bakery worker, Ana, on the bus!

Helm's sophomoric take on themes regarding time and control only reminded me of the brilliant script Andrew Niccol contributed to The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998), which is better executed in both irony and drama. In The Truman Show, Niccol uses the meta relationship drawn between Everyman Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) and God-like TV producer Christof (Ed Harris) to question many things, among them: role-playing, identity, and perhaps most importantly of all, the haze of dream and reality prevalent in our spectacle-driven, mediated world.

Nor does Helm's work here in Stranger Than Fiction, unlike Kaufman's Adaptation, illuminate upon anything about the writing process, let alone theoretical questions concerning the vague line between author and readership. We are not revealed anything about Kay Eiffel's creative mind, that is, unless you consider countless scenes of Emma Thompson hallucinating about potential deaths (Yes, she wants to kill off Harold Crick, asap - we get it) as indicative of insight.

Perhaps it is telling that I became increasingly impatient of Harold Crick's impending death. Not because I love to see people killed off, but moreso because as subject and author, Harold Crick and Kay Eiffel are as bland as they come. Stranger Than Fiction doesn't provoke anything, except pangs of frustration and boredom.


Todd VanDerWerff said...

Good review. Thanks.

One of my biggest problems with this is that the metaphysics just don't work out. Harold is either a fictional character or Eiffel has made herself God somehow. Both of these are interesting ideas, but they're not really developed in any meaningful way. There's an interesting movie to be made about the relationship of the character to the director or screenwriter, but this probably isn't it (there have been many novels where the characters become aware of their author -- Helm is only half as clever as he thinks he is).

Anonymous said...


Yeah, the metaphysics bugged me, too. While I'm not wishing for realism per se (especially stories like this), I wish Helm had slipped in a more logical explanation for the concoction of Harold Crick.

John said...

In regards to the problem with the metaphysics, rather than the movie being a portrayal of real life, it is actually the novel after Eiffle has rewritten it in order for the new ending to make sense, which she tells Professor Hilbert that she will have to do.

Emad said...

Your review is a clear discouragement to any writer who tries to come up with a relatively deep story. If you look at this movie, given the fact that today's Hollywood is selling and showing trash story plots to its audience, you will atleast try to promote any story writing effort that tries to bring relatively meaningful story to cinema goers.

Ben said...

It all depends on the movie goer, obviously, which is why unlike others, I've been dying to see that new Hannah Montana 'film'. There is no reason to impose on a good screenplay much less the screenwriter. Thank you Emad.