Sooner or later, it seems, comedians who make it big in the movies based on their outlandish physical gifts yearn to stretch their mettle by doing something serious. Perhaps because there's something inherently sad in these great clowns to begin with, they seem drawn to darker material. Robin Williams now makes more dramas than comedies. So does Steve Martin. The list is long in this department and includes practically everyone from Chaplin to Sandler. Now Will Ferrell is giving it a go. After the frat-boy comedy Old School, the winning Elf, the hilarious Anchorman ( Ferrell's shining hour ) , the over-the-top The Producers, the race-car parody Talladega Nights and many others, Ferrell is moving into deeper territory. Unlike the movie's previous King of Comedy, Jim Carrey, who plunged into the genre with The Truman Show, Ferrell is gingerly stepping in that direction with the sweetly morose and sorta funny Stranger Than Fiction.
Set in Chicago—and actually shot here ( cue applause ) —Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an I.R.S. agent whose life is so well-ordered that he counts the number of brush strokes when brushing his teeth. But like other serious somnambulists, such as Carrey's Truman Burbank in The Truman Show and Sandler's Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love, Ferrell is in for an awakening. Crick's internal yearning goes into hyperdrive—shaking him to the marrow—when he suddenly hears the voice of the woman who has been narrating the picture for us. This is the caramel-voiced Emma Thompson, who turns out to be a depressed, best-selling author named Kay Eiffel who always kills off her characters. Crick, her latest invention, it seems, is about to get a visit from the Grim Reaper. How or when Eiffel has yet to figure out, as she's experiencing writer's block.
In order to help get her through it and get their book on time, her publisher sends in Penny Escher, an editor designed to get Kay's creative juices going again ( Queen Latifah in a thankless role ) . In the meantime, Harold is suddenly dashing about, mixing up his usual routine to try to stop that voice in his head. He first visits the company psychologist ( a funny cameo by out actor and producer Tom Hulce ) and then, for reasons not exactly sound, visits a literature professor played in the usual absent-minded way by Dustin Hoffman.
While Harold tries to figure out who the voice belongs to and if it's real, there's also the distraction of his first real romance with a baker whose finances he's been assigned to investigate. This baker is played by the vinegary Maggie Gyllenhaal, who adds a nice tart touch to all her scenes and a pinch or two of warmth. ( The film's comedic highlight is the scene where she gets him to accept one of her baked cookies and a glass of milk before seducing him—it's a tiny triumph that cuts deep. )
The movie weaves back and forth between this gentle comedy and the Big Questions about life and death. But at the midpoint, even under the assured direction of Marc Forster—whose pictures I have loved ( like Monster's Ball and Finding Neverland ) —the movie hadn't really taken hold. Though the last half speeds up, the picture seems to require that Ferrell, Thompson and Latifah dial down their uncanny abilities to connect with an audience. Carol Burnett and Mary Tyler Moore ( to a lesser extent ) , when strapped into serious roles, have the same misfortune. The weight of the gray skies that permeate the picture seems to have the effect of dimming down the star wattage of these giant talents. Stranger Than Fiction is likeable enough, as are its players, but it disappears immediately when one recalls Ferrell exclaiming 'By Zeus' beard!' in Anchorman, Latifah confessing her weakness for gay boyfriends to Holly Hunter in Living Out Loud or Thompson in, well, anything.
Director Agnieszka Holland could have taken a few lessons from Marc Forster and done Ed Harris the favor of dialing down his scenery chewing performance in Copying Beethoven. This over-the-top claptrap imagines the last year of the composer's life. Inevitable comparisons to the Gary Oldman vehicle Immortal Beloved will abound, but Oldman didn't have the misfortune to have a director shooting his character's rages and bombast in extreme close-up. Seemingly every scene with Harris and his protégé, Anna Holtz, the comely copyist played by Diane Kruger, is shot with a handheld camera inches from Harris in order to catch every syllable ( and the spittle, apparently ) from this deaf drama queen who hears better than someone with perfect pitch. 'I am a very difficult person, Anna Holtz, but I take comfort in the fact that God made me that way!' and 'God infests my head with music!' are just two of the choice gems he thunders out at his understandably cowed assistant.
The music, naturally, is exquisite, as are the lovely locations, and when Holland allows the material to breathe there are quiet moments of pleasure. But this is a film designed to capture a Great Performance and, indeed, Harris gives it all he's got. But it's the kind of acting that would only be a Must-See in the theatre and, even there, I suspect some might find that this conception of Ludwig van could use a lot less fortissimo and a lot more legato.
Local Screening of Note: As part of its ongoing Science Fiction Movies series, the Gene Siskel Film Center is screening one of the genre's most terrifying entries, Ridley Scott's Alien ( 1979 ) . Aside from its imaginative production design, the film, which introduced Sigourney Weaver, boasts a terrific supporting cast in John Hurt, Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Koto and, one of my favorites, the luminous Veronica Cartwright. ( See my interview with Cartwright in this issue about the making of the film. ) It screens Nov. 10 and 14. Jim Trainor from the Art Institute's Film Department will lecture and lead a discussion of the film at the latter screening. See www.siskelfilmcenter.com .