“Stranger Than Fiction” gets released this week. It’s the one about Will Ferrell’s life being controlled by writer Emma Thompson.
She narrates/dictates his actions and he hears it as a voice in his head. Meanwhile she’s writing what she believes to be a fictional story about his life, while he remains trapped and controlled by her writerly whims. In other words, it’s an omnipotence fantasy for every disgruntled person who’s ever written something for a paycheck.
Normal people will watch it and side with Will Ferrell’s helpless victim. Writers, on the other hand, will think, “Yeah, get him.”
They’re generally a desperate, upset bunch, writers. Stephen Kings and Danielle Steeles aside, the overwhelming majority of them do not earn their living from writing alone. Most have to teach or work at day jobs they despise, take journalism assignments they have no feeling for, or write copy for the back of DVD or cereal boxes. But you’d never know that from watching writers’ lives in movies.
And that’s awesome.
Here’s why: Save for the brilliant “American Splendor,” it’s boring to witness someone being a disgruntled writer. I mean, yes, writers get to think things all day and type them and consult a thesaurus to make it all sound fancier than it would otherwise and then people go, “Ooh, you’re so talented.” They get to do it in their pajamas if they feel like it and they get to not leave the house for days on end. But if you plan to make a writer the main character in your movie, that can’t be how your movie plays out. Because if you do it’s going to be like one of those old Andy Warhol movies where he just pointed his camera at some guy sleeping for six hours.
You’re drunk, you’re in love, you’re a writer!
My personal favorite writer-as-protagonist movies are the ones where they just ditch showing you anything about the job of writing — save for a few moments of soulful typing and flashes of golden gifts from their inner muse — and get right to the alcoholism, romance, libertine sexploits and insanity.
In 1934’s “The Barretts of Wimpole Street,” Norma Shearer as Elizabeth Barrett falls in love with Frederic March as Robert Browning. They do this against her father’s wishes. The movie’s original tagline was “When poets love, Heaven and Earth fall back to watch!” And as entertaining and soapy as it all is, Heaven and Earth didn’t get to watch them being all that poetic, since Norma Shearer spends a lot of the movie lying on a chaise being sickly. Still, though, it’s a much more satisfying poets-in-love movie than watching the relentlessly mopey “Sylvia,” where Gwyneth Paltrow is Sylvia Plath and Daniel Craig is Ted Hughes.
This fun couple is so bummed out that even their Christmas decorations are brown. You think I’m making that up. You spend the whole movie thinking, “Why are these two in love? And how long until she puts her head in the oven?”
In this year’s “Factotum” you’re treated to Matt Dillon as Charles Bukowski (more or less) drinking and stumbling and losing job after job and vomiting in concert with the equally drunk Lili Taylor.
You just sort of go along with it, not feeling too badly for him since he doesn’t seem all that upset about it himself. Definitely nowhere near as miserably soaked as Ray Milland in Billy Wilder’s 1945 film “The Lost Weekend.” Milland winds up pawning his typewriter for more booze while Dillon’s Bukowski doppelganger just keeps finding cash, skips the typewriter part and writes his DT ramblings down in longhand. He maintains. Booze is part of his process.
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Smart, sexy and crazy ... oh my
Most writers I know love movies like 1940’s “His Girl Friday,” where everyone’s impossibly quick-witted and breakneck bantering and journalism seems very, very cool. Or they like to pretend they’re more glamorous than they’ve ever been and get to be part of the Algonquin round table in “Mrs. Parker and The Vicious Circle.”
They’re nice fantasies. Personally, I’m down with 1964’s “Paris When It Sizzles” because William Holden’s writer character is rich and a layabout. But those films don’t go far enough in truly scratching most writers’ itch. That’s because most writers are too shy to say that they’d really rather be a part of the NC-17 free-love fest that is 1990’s “Henry and June,” about the sexed-up lives of Henry Miller, his wife June and Anaïs Nin; or the full-frontal flesh-calligraphy jamborees going down in Peter Greenaway’s 1996 weirdo mind-blower “The Pillow Book.”
The writer-as-nut-job. You know what? Forget what I said up to this point about digging those other representations. Loony trumps everything else.
Even if it’s simply a moment of insanity like when Jane Fonda throws her typewriter out the window in 1977’s “Julia,” it’s a chance for writers like me to sit in the theater and think, “Well, my career is flailing and stalled but at least I’m not out of my gourd.” Besides, tossing a MacBook around just seems less emphatic, you know? The Apple Store would simply send you to the Genius Bar and fix it for you.
It’s comforting to watch 1991’s “Naked Lunch” and get a load of Peter Weller’s typewriter turning into a cockroach, or Jack Nicholson slowly turn mad and murderous in 1980’s “The Shining,” or witnessing Pia Zadora in 1983’s “The Lonely Lady” as she has a nervous breakdown in the shower — clothes on — after being forced into three-way sex with a movie producer. The faces of all who’ve wronged her, along with the keys of her typewriter, spin in her mind until she goes full-bender psychedelic freakout and the screen turns crazy colors. It’s so out-of-control and good you kind of can’t believe it even exists. It’s not just for camp-obsessed gays. It’s for everyone.
If they could remake that one with Will Ferrell — in the Pia role — I’d be first in line.
Dave White is the author of “Exile In Guyville” and the film critic for Movies.com. Find him at www.imdavewhite.com.