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Last Chance Harvey (2009)

There aren’t too many movies that feature a middle-aged romance. That’s really the sole draw here. Harvey follows the titular dad (Dustin Hoffman) as he travels overseas to his daughter’s wedding. His life is in shambles and he strikes up a friendship with a downtrodden woman (Emma Thompson) that eventually percolates into romance. The interaction between Hoffman and Thompson is relaxed and charming but the storyline is too slight and predictable. This whirlwind courtship spans one single day, so the movie feels too brief. We’re just getting to know these characters and enjoying their chemistry when the movie just limps to a close. Last Chance Harvey feels less like a movie and more like the first act of a movie. The plot is predictable and hits all the resolution points it needs to, which means get ready for tear-jerking wedding toasts from men who’ve changed and grown wiser over the course of 24 hours. Last Chance Harvey is a mildly pleasant diversion with two talented actors making the most of a shopworn and abbreviated story.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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Stranger than Fiction (2006)

Ever think your life would make for a good story? Be careful what you wish for. Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is hearing voices. They aren’t telling him to kill or do anything subversive. In fact it’s just one voice, an English woman, and she isn’t instructing Crick to do anything. No, she’s more so just… narrating. She comes in and out and expresses the doldrums of Crick?s life. He’s an IRS agent whose life revolves around order, repetition, and numbers. We can even see his inner tabulations thanks to some snazzy onscreen visual effects. Crick is sent to audit Anna (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a baker with a disdain for civil servants and authority. Crick is stricken by this shrewd beauty and finds himself wanting her, something the Narrator affirms for him. Crick’s life takes a dour turn when the Narrator lets on that Harold Crick had set in motion his “imminent death.” Crick is confused and seeks advice from Professor Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) an expert on literature. Then they figure out the Narrator is Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a famous writer who has the unfortunate habit of bumping off every one of her main characters.

Make no mistake, Stranger than Fiction is funny, but it’s a different kind of funny than most people are accustomed to with Ferrell. In my theater, I kept an eye on a gaggle of teenagers sitting several rows in front of me. I just wanted to observe their body language and what I saw was a lot of fidgeting, getting up for trips to bathrooms and popcorn, and lots of whispery talk. I can only imagine the disappointment of those teenagers expecting Ferrell to rip his clothes off and run around like a buffoon. They were likely busily thumbing away at their ever-present cell phones, text messaging their friends. People that are looking for a wild, sidesplitting, slapstick comedy are going to shaking their head. Stranger than Fiction is funny, but it’s in a very dry, witty way, much like British humor; it’s a humor you can admire for being clever but might not make you roll in any aisle.

The biggest fans of Stranger than Fiction will be bookworms. This is a very literate movie that works better for those with an appreciation or outright love of literature and storytelling. Professor Hilbert doesn’t initially believe Crick until he learns that Crick’s narrator said, “Little did he know.” That, ladies and gents, is all a professor of literature needs. He has to rule out what kind of story Crick may be apart of, so he subjects Crick to a series of hilarious questions along the lines of treasure-inheriting, nemesis-making, and magical-creature befriending. Crick keeps a notebook to tally examples in his life that may point to whether he is part of a Comedy or a Tragedy. Professor Hilton even explains the difference: in grand Shakespearean tradition, a comedy ends with people getting hitched and a tragedy ends with people getting snuffed. This is all fabulously witty and extremely fun, but I can think you’ll see why hard-core fans of Old School and Talladega Nights might be heading for the exits.

Writer Zach Helm has created a wonderfully whimsical tale that’s trippy but manages to still have warmth and a firm heart. It’s far more embraceable a movie than, say, Adaptation, and less smug. He has a smart sense of humor and loves deconstructing literature, like the Jasper Fforde (The Thursday Next books) of screenwriting. We are really sucked into the movie from the moment we can hear Thompson. The story has an innocence to it and this existential comedy feels out there but still grounded; it’s surprisingly poignant and full of dramatic revelations. Even better, Helm has done something that few have achieved: he wrote a story-within-a-story that works. Kay’s narrative voice is highly droll in her observations on Harold Crick’s life. It sounds like a genuine novel, and on top of that, a novel I would enjoy reading. Stranger than Fiction is all the proof I need that Helm is a talent to keep track of.

The performers all seem to have the same affection for the material. Ferrell is making that leap from funnyman into leading man, the same dramatic territory Robin Williams first tiptoed in Good Morning Vietnam and, likewise, Jim Carrey approached in The Truman Show. Ferrell won’t turn any heads but he underplays his performance maturely, playing a sad but sweet drone of a human being finally taking charge of his life under very insane circumstances. There’s a quiet moment toward the end where Ferrell is told he must accept his fate and he sits, shell-shocked, tearing up, his voice getting softer with every word. It’s only a moment but it piques my interest in what Ferrell may have in the tank. The comedy he can do in spades, including a desperate moment when he tries narrating his own life to coax his Narrator out of hiding.

Who will turn heads, however, is Gyllenhaal. I can already see a nation of teen boys falling in love with her tattooed, punky baker. To them I say, get in line pals, Gyllenhaal has made me dot my I’s with hearts ever since her star-making performance in 2002’s kinky romantic comedy, Secretary. She’s easy to fall in love with and expresses a fragile compassion to her role. The romance between Anna and Crick is unexpected but these two people need each other, and you feel that need as you watch their eyes light up as their relationship blossoms. Late moments between them add to the tenderness of the film and you will be on your knees pleading Crick is spared so he can return to loving Anna. I think Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World” will become a potential staple on romantic teenage mix CDs sent to their sweethearts from now on.

Thompson and Hoffman have appealing supporting performances. Thompson has marvelous fun thinking of different grisly outcomes in store for Crick. Her interaction with the hospital staff to see the “not gonna make it people” is a howl. But Thompson is too good of an actress to play it straight. Once she discovers the life-altering implications of her writing she is crushed by guilt, obsessed over killing good people cruelly. Frankly, if I had anyone narrating my life, Thompson’s voice would definitely rank high. Hoffman plays a dedicated literary professor like a straight man, and everything seems on the level for him, even the fantastic. It’s a nice touch for a film that doesn’t require broad strokes.

The movie doesn’t have the depth of feeling or dark turnarounds that I know Charlie Kaufman would have done. Stranger than Fiction has a lot of fun with a very ripe premise, and is very intellectually stimulating, but you do feel like it could have gone further, exploring the reaches and implications of its metaphysical setup. What if someone who read Kay’s manuscript thought it was such a masterpiece, a shining light of literature that could move mountains, that they knew Crick must die, and that they must kill him to make certain of it. Or what about the relationship between author and character, and the role each has over the other and perhaps a battle over the future, a typewriter, and a happy ending at the end of a tunnel. However, while all of these options would further explore the novel premise, it would betray the movie’s whimsical tone. This isn’t a very dark movie. It has an authentic sweetness to it, and Crick is a gentle and kind man, and to do anything too heavy would work against the film’s tone. The movie explores existential queries and the topics can be grim, but ultimately Stranger than Fiction is life affirming.

Stranger than fiction also has a buoyant, unexpectedly pleasing romance to it. Again, it doesn’t show the depth of love and human feeling that Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine could, but this is an unfair comparison. This romance is more a subplot that carries increasing weight thanks to heartwarming performances and the winsomely adorable Gyllenhaal. The romance in Eternal Sunshine was the story, and everything else was outside variable coming into contact. It might sound dismissive to call Stranger than Fiction as decaf Charlie Kaufman, but it really is a compliment. Kaufman is the most exciting, brilliant, creative, insightful, and whacked out screenwriter working today. I would give one of my kidneys to write even one story that could be described as decaf Kaufman. Stranger than Fiction may not examine as many themes, conflicts, or relationships as Kaufman might with the material, but this movie is a sweet fable that floats by like a fluffy cloud on a sunny day. It’s just so damn pleasant you sort of soak it in and fall in love, not wanting to leave.

Stranger than Fiction is strange, all right, but gloriously so. Scribe Zach Helm has concocted an existential fairy tale aimed for bookworms and outsiders. The premise is clever but the film doesn’t stop there, and Helm explores the implications of his premise with whimsy, charm, and a sweetness that is hard to rebuke. The wacky story seems reminiscent of Kaufman’s works, but it has a more heartwarming and embraceable appeal. Great performances from a game cast help to push the material even further into excellence. It has a small handful of flaws, perhaps a too limited scope, but that doesn’t stop Stranger than Fiction from being one of the best stories of 2006 and one of the best movies too.

Nate?s Grade: A-

Finding Neverland (2004)

My friend George Bailey and I came to a similar conclusion during a recent conversation. There are a handful of movies, usually released around this time of year, that are packed to the gills with awards hype and general goodwill. Then I see them and feel underwhelmed for whatever reason and I walk out and feel that I should like the movie more than I do (if I do at all). I don’t know what to call it, societal guilt, elitism, but this is exactly what I felt when I left Finding Neverland.

J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) is in search of his next play. It?s 1903 London, and the financier (Dustin Hoffman) of his last play has taken a financial bath. Barrie’s also emotionally closed off from his wife (Radha Mitchell). One day in the park, Barrie stumbles across Sylvia (Kate Winslet), a widow managing four boys by her lonesome. Barrie takes a shining to her children and delights in spending long days with Sylvia and her boys. From his encounters with Sylvia and the boys, Barrie works up the inspiration to write a new story, called Peter Pan. Of course the public has its own gossip about a married man gallivanting about with a widow and her boys (think recent Michael Jackson scandals). Then there?s Sylvia?s mother (Julie Christie), who is set to put her house back in order starting with removing Barrie from their lives.

The message of the movie is about the need for adults to slow down, open their imagination, and become bewitched by the power of believing. Because it’s not like there aren’t any other Hollywood movies out there that teach us to loosen up and enjoy life. Thank you Finding Neverland, I never would have found this out by myself. The message of belief overpowering all is also a bit naive, but then it works into the whole cross-stitching of sap the movie is generating.

Not even Depp can save the film. Long established as one of the most versatile and exciting actors, Depp finds ways to disappear into his oddball characters. In Finding Neverland, Depp sports an impressive Scottish brogue, but, sadly, this is the most impressive aspect about his performance. There had been much talk about Finding Neverland being Depp’s next opportunity at finding Oscar, but it would be a shame if Depp won for such a lackluster, artificial performance especially when he’s been brilliant so consistently in other movies. J.M. Barrie was somewhat eccentric, but in Finding Neverland he comes off as mostly vacant. The film tries to show that Barrie didn’t really fit in, but instead of becoming a showcase for Depp’s acting it becomes a showcase for Depp’s silence. The performance is so subtle that it doesn’t even come off as a performance. If Depp stood in the background of a movie, it would be akin to this performance.

Winslet has also been a very versatile actor. Her role in Finding Neverland never really deepens beyond Disadvantaged Woman. She’s been hit by adversity, she’s beset by four rambunctious kids and an icy mother, but that’s about all the film does for her characterization. Winslet is a tremendously talented actor, as evidenced by her Oscar-worthy performance in this year’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. So why strand her in a role where her character’s greatest acting moment is coughing fits?

Director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball) has the frustrating habit of having two shot styles he shoots in. He decides between medium shots which usually involve two or three people, or large close-ups. While I was watching Finding Neverland I never once thought to myself that something was filmed in a visually interesting way. Some of Forster’s decisions seem unnecessary, like when he has to visually show us scenes of imagination instead of allowing the audience to, gasp, use their own imagination (hey, isn’t that the message of the movie?).

Finding Neverland tries so hard to be a three-hanky movie (and truth be told I heard a lot of sniffling in my theater during the last half hour), but what stops the film short is how unbelievably transparent everything is. Finding Neverland could have explored the rich complexity of an enigmatic figure like J.M. Barrie, but instead it settles for goopy sentimentality at every opportunity. Barrie becomes sugar-coated into an earnest father figure, and in the process key facts are sugar-coated as well. What do you mean? Well, Sylvia’s husband didn’t die until several years after Barrie wrote Peter Pan. Barrie’s wife didn’t have her affair until long after Peter Pan. Also, the original Peter threw himself in front of a train because of how upset he was about his connection to the famous character. I guess that’s why this is a biographical movie merely “inspired” by true events, much like Hidalgo.

The filmmakers rely on cloying tricks to make an audience care about its characters. The movie paints in very stark black and white tones, mainly “adults = shortsighted” and “children = special.” This is a film that is proud to take the easy road and makes little effort to cover its pride. It plays toward audience expectation and thus loses any long lasting magic.

Finding Neverland takes the easy road for audience-friendly sappiness. Barrie insists that 25 orphans be strategically placed around the theater on opening night of Peter Pan. Sure enough, the theater is full of old white men with monocles, and apparently they just don’t get the spirit of theater. The orphans laugh and squeal from the stage antics, and somehow this triggers all those old curmudgeons to learn to laugh once again. You see, all it takes is strategically placed orphans to make us laugh at life again.

When Sylvia is hanging laundry she starts to gently cough. If you’re smart, you’ll instantly figure out what trajectory is in store for her, but even if you miss this single cough don’t worry, because Sylvia will be doubled over with coughing later to spell it out for everyone. You can all but see the strings being pulled (the audience will cry… now!). All can be overcome in the end, those who didn’t understand will, and we’ll all be happier and live life to the fullest, in theory of course.

Finding Neverland wants to be Shakespeare in Love, another whimsical movie that shows how a writer utilized the people and events around them to pen a masterwork. Except in Shakespeare in Love there was a romance to fall back on, as well as some ripe comedy, but with Finding Neverland there isn’t anything to fall back on. It’s a Hallmark card mass-marketed to the largest possible audience.

Everything about Finding Neverland is disappointingly under whelming. The direction is shabby, the actors are marooned by their weak roles, and nothing is sacred in the film’s pursuit of that tearjerker ending. This is a movie for people that ask little of their movies, and yet I can reasonably see Finding Neverland becoming an audience favorite and riding good word of mouth all the way to awards season. Finding Neverland is a film that never takes flight because it’s too content to stay grounded by going the easy route.

[Nate’s Grade: C

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