It's easy to review bad movies, but rather more difficult to review good ones. I went out to see 'Stranger Than Fiction
' last night, and I loved it. It was beautifully paced, literate and subtle, with some superb acting and a witty, elegant script.
There, you see? So far, so boring. Go read one of my Bad Movie reviews if you want to avoid my dreary, patchy, long-winded analysis, or if you want to avoid spoilers. Otherwise you only have yourself to blame.
One of the most obvious things I appreciated about 'Stranger Than Fiction' was the set design. I love good set design. In these sorts of movies, the set design can actually do half the work of creating the characters. For example, Professor Hilbert's office in the neo-Brutalist architecture of a university foreshadows the ascendancy of ideology over compassion in his own soul. Karen Eiffel's writing suite is a sterile, unwelcoming space, but the sparse furnishings are whimsical designer pieces, reflecting her struggles between her craft and her feelings for her characters. Even the peripheral character of Dave gets a worn retro-futuristic apartment, embodying his thwarted childhood dreams of Space Camp.
I don't mention Ana Pascal's shop or apartment, both of which are eclectic, colourful spaces filled with hand-crafted objects and warmth, because here I think the film makers faltered. Ana Pascal doesn't quite work. For a start, Maggie Gyllenhaal is too plumply cherubic for the role, not to mention far too young. The character needed to be older, more angular, and less nice
You see, at her core, Ana is obnoxious. She's a self-righteous, narrow-minded left-wing bigot, smugly demonstrating her supposed moral superiority by keeping a homeless man as a sort of pet, and yet treating Harold with astonishing levels of bile and contempt before she even knows what sort of person he is, based on her prejudices about what he represents. She accepts no priorities or morals that are not her own, and as such she's about as genuinely caring as a Hallmark card. When the movie tries to avoid this, it forces actions upon her that clash with her character.
If that simple truth (that despite her right-on opinions and socio-political awareness, she's a plain, old-fashioned shrew) had been recognised and embraced, it would have given her more room to develop as a character. A little more bitterness, a few more grey hairs, a little more badly concealed disillusionment, and she would have been a better yin to Harold's yang, and they could have grown together, rather than just having Harold grow toward her.
Still, Ana Pascal's deficiencies notwithstanding, 'Stranger Than Fiction' is the best movie I've seen since 'Sideways'. I even liked Dustin Hoffman's performance, which, since I've never forgiven him for the awful hash he made of 'Death of a Salesman', is quite an achievement.