After starting what he thinks is just another day by methodically brushing his teeth the way he always does IRS Agent Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) gets a visit from an uninvited auditory guest--Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) the author of his life. Little does she know while writing a book about a character named Harold Crick that the real Harold can hear her narrations loud and clear; little does Harold know that her novels don't have happy endings--that is until he hears it in her narration which states that he is to die. Luckily she's in the midst of writer's block so he has some time to find out well how much time he has to live. He immediately consults a literary professor (Dustin Hoffman) who instructs Harold to further pursue a relationship with an anarchistic baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) he is currently auditing in order to learn more about the course the novel will take. The relationship flourishes and he’s happy for the first time in a long time but will art imitate--or end--his life? Ferrell seems to be mimicking the exact path of his direct comedic-superstar predecessor Jim Carrey even down to his first serious-ish role: Carrey’s first dramatic foray was the equally quasi-existential though much better Truman Show. Ferrell has no problem whatsoever making the transition--that’s just what abundant natural talent affords certain actors. But his crossover attempt should’ve been more subtle since audiences have come to expect at least one “streaking” scene per Ferrell film. As Ferrell’s heavily tattooed love interest the ubiquitous Gyllenhaal scores again. Fresh off roles as a stripper single mom (Sherrybaby) and a frantic pregnant 9/11 wife (World Trade Center) she proves that no matter her character’s physical appearance or mindset she can do no wrong. Ditto for Thompson who spends much of the film in pajamas and the throes of writer’s block--the "writer" prototype--much to the dismay of her publisher-appointed assistant played well by Queen Latifah. Rounding out the cast is Hoffman whose professor isn't totally unlike his answer provider in like-minded I Heart Huckabees. His character’s quirky humor is child’s play at this point for the veteran but a select few scenes between him and Ferrell are extremely satisfying. To liken Stranger Than Fiction to a Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Adaptation et al) script/movie is not totally without merit. Fiction captures the “vivid yet distant” essence that is common with Kaufman’s stories and subsequent movies. But whereas Kaufman doesn’t go out of his way to coddle audiences’ minds amidst his often obtuse movies writer Zach Helm and director Marc Forster seem to have audience appreciation (read: box office) on the brain. Helm’s idea is nothing short of genius in a way that’s different from the oft-mentioned screenwriters he’s compared to but somewhere en route he and/or Forster (Finding Neverland) compromised the vision. Because what starts out as a complex intriguing movie turns stale quickly especially given the inexplicable ease with which it transitions from a metaphysical story into a straightforward one. And Forster's tendency in the movie to undercomplicate is just as detrimental as the opposite extreme. The dialogue also falls somewhat flat often neither funny nor off-kilter enough buoyed only slightly by superb cinematography set direction and indie music featuring Spoon (whose frontman Britt Daniel reworked some of their best songs for the movie)--but we’ve come to expect that trifecta from similar movies.
It’s Christmas Eve in Wichita--the Las Vegas of Kansas--and there’s a mystery (with scant comedy) unfolding: Charlie (John Cusack) a disgruntled attorney and frequent strip-joint patron and his unsavory associate Vic (Billy Bob Thornton) have just embezzled $2 million from Charlie’s mob boss. But they have grown skeptical of one another natch. Also factoring into the equation is Charlie’s undying lust for strip-club owner Renata (Connie Nielsen) with whom he plans to escape once the ice on the roads melts. But she’ll only flee with him if he’s a million bucks richer which leads him back to Vic to sort everything out once and for all. Charlie’s final dealings with Vic lead them both down some slippery roadways but the ice does indeed melt. The only question: Who’ll be fleeing with whom once it does? The lead actors in Harvest are a bit miscast. Cusack’s droll demeanor is utilized once again but ad nauseam. His Charlie ends up being more confused than endearing further highlighting the film’s lack of clarity. Thornton shows promise and continues to fine tune his skills at dark comedy. But his role is limited leaving you wanting more especially since he’s being touted as one of the film’s main selling points. And Oliver Platt--who plays Charlie’s belligerent drinking buddy--has his funny moments but is ultimately too erratic and uncertain in a part tailor-made for indie darling Philip Seymour Hoffman. There is an exception in Harvest from we-didn’t-know-he-could-do-that Randy Quaid. Although he appears late in the film as the merciless bloated mob boss who has just been robbed of several million dollars the actor is entirely memorable. It’s usually tough to successfully mix noir sensibilities with comedy. Director Harold Ramis deserves praise for his bravery and departure but he should’ve simply stuck with his own tried-and-true comedy formula that has guided his career so well. Of course the director’s clout affords him some big-name actors for offbeat roles a prime holiday release date and a script that probably was once quirkily gorgeous. But they’re square pegs now to be put into round holes. The cinematography is wasted which is unfortunate since it nicely underscores the bitterly cold and distant Midwest. The Ice Harvest just proves to be another element foreign to Ramis’ fans who likely covered their eyes and ears when Robert De Niro yelled in Ramis’ Analyze This.
After surviving a devastating car accident following her first college party freshman Cassie (Melissa Sagemiller) falls into a coma and steps into a nightmare of otherworldly visitations. Haunted by a grim reaper of a far different kind her only hope is to cling to chance encounters with her lost love Sean (Casey Affleck) and the aid of a mysterious young priest named Father Jude (Luke Wilson). Cassie's malicious friends Matt (Wes Bentley) Annabel (Eliza Dushku) and the morose Raven (Angela Featherstone) seem intent on drawing her to the dark side but the spirit of her soul mate Sean guides her back to the world of the living.
Sagemiller (Get Over It) may be a fine actress but this film--her second full-length feature--isn't the one to prove it. Not that Sagemiller does a poor job but like most dull and stale horror movies the female lead isn't asked to do much other than look frightened and scream--a lot. Affleck (Good Will Hunting) Bentley (American Beauty) and Dushku (Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) are among the more talented actors of their generation but are completely wasted especially Affleck in his one-dimensional role. Wilson as Father Jude is the only character with an interesting part but unfortunately the good Father's development is stunted and incomplete leaving Wilson little to work with.
Steve Carpenter's first turn as a director leaves much to be desired. Of course Carpenter wrote the formulaic script so why shouldn't he be the one to helm it? One major flaw (and there are plenty to choose from) is that nearly half the movie is shot tight on the characters giving the audience a very myopic view. Even if that was intentional it certainly did nothing to heighten the tension (what little of it there was) in the movie. The flick's tagline "The World of the Dead and the World of the Living... are About to Collide" conveys the message of an epic struggle between the forces of evil and the forces of good--a struggle that never materializes. And the film's final message that love conquers all is the boring hackneyed truism that breaks the cliché camel's back.