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November 9th, 2007     by Catherine Hayday     Comments

So as it’s nearing the end of 2007, it seemed appropriate to review a film that came out in 2006. Retrospection and all that.

No, not really. I’m just way behind on my movie watching. And catching myself in a moment of honesty, I’m going to review what I actually rented and watched this week, rather than misrepresenting my lifestyle by going out and intentionally renting something more… Shameless.

Stranger Than Fiction

Actually it was a bit of a banner movie week for me, as I saw not one, but two new movies. One which served the other actually. Because in a blindly determined bid to go to a matinee, I ended up seeing Bee Movie. Which was so exceptionally poor, that it made Stranger Than Fiction look (possibly much) better than I might have found it otherwise.

Stranger Than Fiction is a story about a story: Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is an IRS agent who, while brushing his teeth one day, begins hearing the voice of a narrator, narrating his life. Which rattles and annoys him, but which he starts taking very seriously when the narrator casually mentions his imminent death.

Stranger Than Fiction was likable for many reasons (art direction on the calculations graphics; an implausible variation on our regular world quietly accepted as plausible), dislikable for others (the story does not live up to the metastory; inconsistencies in how the narrative threads fit together).

But what makes Stranger Than Fiction worth watching are the understated admirable everyday female characters.

Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) Ana is the love interest, and probably the most prominent female character. Ana owns and runs her own bakery, and takes a stand against government policy through a selective tax return.

Unfortunately she’s played (and written) a little inconsistently and she doesn’t really hang together quite right as a character. Sadly a major plot point involving Ana is based on the “I hate you… until I do you” approach. Or, as Wikipedia put it, Ana “overcomes her antagonism for him and responds passionately”. To which plot device I say again “UGH”. I crave the movies where a scowl is just a scowl.

To its credit, this is a movie where the characters at least meet each other partway, and it’s not just a totally unexplainable (or indefensible) transition from death stares to tongues. Ana dislikes Harold while she thinks he is being dislikable, and is willing to reassess him based on new information, and a genuine apology.

But the Ana character is only okay, it’s really all about Penny and Karen.

Penny Escher (Queen Latifah) Karen Eiffel’s assistant, Penny is a supporting character, and a completely enjoyable one. She is an assistant, and not an underling. Which I find so refreshing. Assistants and secretaries on film seem to be getting more and more subservient, which doesn’t really help us out here in the real world. While being respectful and professional, Penny starts off her relationship with Karen by laying down her ground rules. She never lets Karen steamroller her, and doesn’t mask or shift her opinions to make them more palatable to her new boss. In short, she is a strong and complete person within being excellent at her job – she knows she is good at what she does, and the implied hierarchy of famous author -> temporary assistant is never given any ground.

Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) Best for last. So delicious. An articulate, intelligent, successful, compassionate, emotional, stubborn, confident, feisty author.

Karen Eiffel is not the romantic female lead, she is allowed to be much more interesting than that. She is the eccentric writer, played very believably by Emma Thompson. Karen is the omniscient narrator, dealing with the crisis of conscience. She’s not young and sexified, she is accomplished and smart, and she has integrity. It is Karen who is responsible for Harold’s fate, and she deals with the decision with gravitas, and with emotion. The way a real person might.

We talk about looking for the great roles for women, and I think we sometimes are looking too hard for the big showcase examples and miss the less flashy ones. This movie is not explicitly about women, there are not even any women on the promotional poster. I would like to see more movies which meet both of those criteria. But, even when they’re not in the lead, characters like Karen Eiffel and Penny Escher are there – roles of everyday women who have character, chutzpah, and personality. The more of them there are in mainstream films, the better.

Tags: film fridays

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