A few days ago, I watched the movie Stranger Than Fiction with my son. It’s a metafictional story, where a person recognizes he is the character in a work of fiction, and struggles to escape. It was pretty OK. The character, an IRS employee, is played by Will Ferrell, the writer by Emma Thompson, ragged-haired, chain smoking, un-made-up. The literary theorist Ferrel goes to for help is played by Dustin Hoffman, somewhat reprising a similar role in I (Heart) Huckabees, a movie I enjoyed a great deal more than this one.
There was a lot to like, though I was disappointed by how superficial Hoffman’s analysis and critique are: there are all sorts of questions of genre, audience expectations, and issues of characterization (“it’s weird, but I’ve really started noticing what brand of pen people use”) that he could use to figure out the author’s identity, but he focuses on the phrase “Little did he know...”, a wooden piece of foreshadowing that makes the writer seem pretty industrial grade.
But let’s talk about Thompson’s writer. She hasn’t published a book in ten years, and, from Hoffman’s professorial admiration of her, you figure she’s a literary writer, not big on sales. Nevertheless, her publisher sends an enforcer, played by Queen Latifah, to get her to finish her book. This smooth woman gets paid a fulltime salary to bring highbrow midlist authors to parturition, a character who could only have been invented by a writer who knew nothing about the writing business. Or maybe it is a blocked writer’s greatest fantasy: “my unwritten book is so important that everyone’s greatest interest is that I finish it”. Latifah doesn’t get enough to do, either as a character, or in the plot. She’s mostly someone for the writer to explain things to.
But what story is Ferrell in, if he’s not in a metafictional one? Thompson’s book seems immensely dull without the character’s revolt, down to the irritatingly self-righteous baker, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, whom Ferrell audits, and whose life-affirming joy warms Ferrell from his useless, enclosed life...well, you’ve been there a hundred times before. “Why am I suddenly meeting only wooden, stereotyped characters? And why do I feel compelled to explain everything to you, even though I barely know you?”
Charlie Kauffman is the master of this kind of thing. For real metafiction fun, Synecdoche, New York is the movie to see, probably more than once.