No Such Nonsense

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Friday, November 10, 2006

Stranger than Kaufman

This week's most-talked about new movie is Stranger Than Fiction. In it, Harold Crick (played by a thankfully-less-manic-than-usual Will Ferrell) begins to hear the voiceover of an author (Emma Thompson) narrating the events of his life. The narrator details Crick's work-a-day existence and, before long, foretells of his death (much to Crick's chagrin, as you can imagine). Crick's subsequent attempts to cheat death and find his narrator propel the story along.

The film looks delightfully loopy and, indeed, it's gotten some fairly rapturous reviews, most of which note that it is Kaufman-esque. The Kaufman in question? Not Andy, though delightfully loopy he was. No, that'd be Charlie Kaufman, enigmatic screenwriter of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and the sublime, Academy-Award-winning Eternal Sunshine of Spotless Mind. More than one reviewer has suggested that Stranger than Fiction is very much a Charlie Kaufman sort of movie. And it's true. When I first saw the previews on TV, Kaufman's name immediately leapt to my mind, though he has no involvement in the film.

So what exactly does that mean? What the hell is a Charlie Kaufman-type movie anyway?

Well, it could actually mean a few different things. On the simplest level, it could be complex, dense storytelling that usually takes a head-scratching twist (Eternal Sunshine was, almost literally, a head trip and Adaptation took a sharp, knowing turn into Jerry Bruckheimer land about half-way through). It could mean a smart screenplay and brilliant casting that tweaks our perceptions of Hollywood in general and its cast in particular (Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper in Adaptation, Cameron Diaz in Malkovich - to say the least, these are not their typical roles). Or it could mean a screenplay that takes a meta leap, becoming as much about itself as about its purported subject. Here, Adaptation is the best example; it features a writer named Charlie Kaufman trying to write a script for his new movie and fighting against the Hollywood blockbuster instincts of his twin brother, Donald. The writing credits for the finished film include both Donald and Charlie Kaufman.

I think its this last element that is truly Kaufman-esque, and the one that most columnists are referencing in relation to Stranger than Fiction. The meta move, which both adds to the storyline and demolishes it at the same time, invites the viewer to enjoy the movie while winking at the machinery of moviemaking and examining the absurdity of the whole process, including the viewer's own role in it. It's a head trip all right.

A stranger to Kaufman? Run, don't walk, to rent Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Perfect cast. Beautiful, haunting story. Filmic perfection. Go. Now.


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