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Film Review Archive


A Good Year
Stranger Than Fiction

(Three Films)
Reviewed by Dennis Morton

I’ve seen a lot of movies in the last two weeks. Here’s my take on a handful.

Let me start with A Good Year. I couldn’t miss this one. It’s directed by one of my favorites – Ridley Scott. It stars Australian bad boy, Russell Crowe, as a ruthless trader who makes a fortune on the London Stock Exchange. The film opens promisingly. Crowe’s character, as a boy, is being tutored in the fine art of life by his uncle, played beautifully by Albert Finney. The uncle owns a gorgeous vineyard in Provence. Shoot forward about three decades. Crowe is having a great, jaundiced time turning the stock exchange into his personal Monopoly board. He receives word of his uncle’s death and returns to Provence to sell the estate. What follows can be summed up as a fairy tale for the privileged. This is not unenjoyable, but either Ridley Scott, or Russell Crowe, or both, lack the gene for comedy. Crowe’s timing is off. The result is a modestly likeable film, but hardly what I’d hoped for from Ridley Scott.

Stranger Than Fiction, on the other hand, greatly exceeded my expectations. The previews made clear that this was a writer’s film, a bold gamble on the part of the scriptwriter and director to force us to suspend our disbelief, on two levels. Because the previews let us know that this is a story about a man who discovers he’s actually a character in a novel-in-progress, I feel comfortable passing that key information on to you. Will Ferrell is an IRS agent, a man governed by his watch. He’s at ease with numbers but frightened of emotions and of the flesh. So of course, he has to fall in love with one of his clients. But as soon as the juices begin to flow, he discovers not only that he’s a character in a work of fiction, but that, for dramatic reasons, he’s going to be killed off.

I knew that much before I saw the film. I was mostly curious to see how it would fail. But Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhall, Dustin Hoffman and Will Ferrell succeed in generating genuine empathy for their unlikely characters. None of this would be possible without the light touch of director Marc Forster, whose previous film, Finding Neverland, dealt with the life of a real writer, James Barrie. The final key to the success of Stranger Than Fiction is the very smart script of a very young writer from Santa Clara, Zach Helm. If the production notes are right, this guy is only 31 years old. Stranger Than Fiction defies the odds. It’s a wonderful movie.

Finally, a short take on Bobby, a well-intentioned film written and directed by Emilio Estevez. While Bobby fails as art, it succeeds admirably in resuscitating the memory of Bobby Kennedy. This is not a documentary, although there is ample footage of Kennedy on the campaign trail. The film takes place in the Ambassador Hotel in LA, on the day Kennedy was assassinated. The Altmanesque plot and ensemble cast is hit and miss. It works best when Harry Belafonte and Anthony Hopkins share the screen. But the newsreel clips of Bobby Kennedy working crowds and making speeches is a stunningly sad reminder of how vacuous American politics has become. Kennedy was the real thing. He had heart and soul, compassion, and conviction. He was the last of the best. And Estevez has done the country a great service by reminding us of how it might have been, and perhaps, how we might, by example, demand more of those who would occupy seats of political power. Notwithstanding its shortcomings, Bobby deserves a wide audience, and Emelio Estevez, our thanks.

For KUSP’s Film Gang, this is Dennis Morton.

For KUSP’s Film Gang, this is Dennis Morton.