Take Two

by Luke Bumgarten & r & & r & STRANGER THAN FICTION

(wait for DVD)

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & H & lt;/span & arold Crick (Will Ferrell) just found out he's going to die. The disembodied voice of a novelist (Emma Thompson) told him so. Finding out about the dying thing sends him first to a shrink, then to a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman) who helps him track down the novelist who is planning to kill Crick the character -- the novelist not realizing Crick, the person, really exists.

The acting is good, the story is initially compelling, the directing is inventive, and even the numbers and calculations -- which director Marc Forster overlays on the action to suggest Crick views the world as a series of quantifiable (and taxable) numbers -- are clever and effective storytelling devices.

The premise itself, though, doesn't measure up to the thought put into its production. Once Crick finds his author, all should be fine. Rather than seeing that she's toying with a real human life and stopping altogether, the film goes on to speculate about whether Harold's life is more or less valuable than the book being written about him. What a fake and duplicitous conflict. Art's value is intrinsically tied to the way it interacts with its audience. This is true of all art. Even the artist, at a certain point, becomes an audience of his or her own work. Without an audience, there would be no meaning, and without meaning, art's just ink on a page or pigment on a canvas. Art is engagement with meaning, so considering killing the person most engaged with life-as-art -- the person himself -- is a false conflict, regardless how hard screenwriter Zach Helm tries to convince us (and himself, I'd wager) this is a very deep and philosophical thing to ponder. The only way Stanley's duped into playing along is that he hates himself and thinks his life is worthless, which is really kind of cruel.

Intellectuals like Hoffman's character, who would save the book by killing its subject, are under the romantic (na & iuml;ve) delusion that art has some sort of objective worth. This type of intellectualism-for-its-own-sake is fatally flawed and loses sight of art's essentially human nature. Similarly, Stranger Than Fiction is like much of pop post-modernism in that it overemphasizes a hopelessly clever, over-complicated premise without ever asking if the central conflict was valid. It's not, and consequently, the film ends on a breezy, feel-good technicality.

Ferrell, Thompson and Hoffman are good in front of the camera and Forster is borderline great behind it, but Stranger Than Fiction was dead at conception. (Rated PG-13)


(Worth $8)

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & here's a similar problem afoot in Babel, which uses an interwoven though far-flung narrative and a title (referencing a Biblical story in which humanity so offended God that he scrambled our language and flung us to the corners of the Earth) that are meant to suggest that we're all connected. Just how connected, though, is a little unclear.

The stories of an American couple in Morocco, their children and Latina nanny, and a Japanese schoolgirl and her widower father link up in more or less tenuous ways to discuss either a) how we are tied to events all over the world or b) how we all, despite our myriad languages and circumstances, face the same struggles. I know a) already; I have the Internet. Possibility b) is far more interesting, but doesn't require the interweaving plot, which is cleverer than it needs to be and ultimately more confusing. Like the other collaborations between Alejandro Gonz & aacute;lez I & ntilde; & aacute;rritu and Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros and 21 Grams), though, there are no villains in Babel, only people who do unfortunate things and who must face the consequences. And that's powerful in any language. (Rated R)