#226. Meta-writers

Many years ago, shortly after I started this blog, I wrote about the idea that a film could be “self-aware.” As a reminder, these films know what genres they are a part of, and use that to their advantage to poke fun at the genre, while also being fully complicit in it. The “awareness” of these movies is a behind-the-scenes nod to the audience to let them know everything they are watching is all in good fun. That being said, there are a few films out there that take the more out-in-front approach to “awareness.” These films not only show you they are aware of their existence; they often feature the writer of the plot as its main character. As such, the screenwriters of these movies would be considered “meta-writers,” since the film self-references itself via its writer protagonist (or antagonist). This week’s two films feature meta-writers.

Stranger than FictionStranger than Fiction
Year: 2006
Rating: PG-13
Length: 113 minutes / 1.88 hours

Narration can be an interesting way to tell a story. Sometimes, the narrator is the main character. Sometimes, the narrator is an eternal entity like God or Death. Sometimes, the narrator is a third-party observer. Whoever the narrator ends up being, they bring a personal touch to the plot because the story is being told by somebody. The most common forms of narrators are in stories that are either a first-person narration or a third-person omniscient. An author who does not want to constrain themselves to a single character will often use the latter “voice” when narrating a story. In this way, the audience will sometimes know more than the main character, adding to dramatic tension. But what if you suddenly started hearing the author’s voice, narrating your life in the third-person omniscient voice? What would you do?

Writer’s block is as much a problem for new writers as it is for experienced ones. Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is known for writing novels where the main character tragically dies, but she’s having trouble figuring out how to kill off her most recent character, Harold Crick (Will Ferrell). To make things worse, one day Harold shows up at her home and says he’s been hearing her voice narrating his life. This revelation concerns Karen, who now wonders how many real people she has killed in her novels over the years. Unfortunately, this meeting leads to Karen finishing a draft of the final scenes where Harold is set to die. Having met Harold, she is conflicted with publishing this ending. While it would make the work a masterpiece with Harold’s death, she can’t bring herself to kill an innocent man who lives in the real world.

Seven PsychopathsSeven Psychopaths
Year: 2012
Rating: R
Length: 110 minutes / 1.83 hours

Much like the looping and repeated timelines that frequent science fiction films, many meta films will end up revealing their origins within the very story they are currently telling. A fine example of this would be the 2002 film, Adaptation. In it, the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (portrayed by Nicholas Cage) has some writer’s block as he attempts to adapt a book into a film. In the process of breaking through his block, he ends up writing himself into the film, thus resulting in the meta-writer recursion. If anything, these types of films allow for a fusion of the first-person narration and third-person omniscient voices, just due to the fact that the “god” who creates the story of the film is also often the main character. Another such example of the meta-writer recursion can be found in the 2012 action-comedy, Seven Psychopaths.

As is usually the case in these meta-writer films, Marty Faranan (Colin Farrell) is a screenwriter struggling to pad out his screenplay for Seven Psychopaths. He already has two or three of the psychopaths figured out, but when his friend, Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell), puts an ad in the local paper for any psychopaths in Los Angeles to contact Marty, he soon finds himself face-to-face with Zachariah Rigby (Tom Waits) a serial killer who killed serial killers. Meanwhile, Billy continues his dog-stealing business, which causes Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), another psychopath, to come after Billy and Marty after his Shih Tzu is stolen. To add to Charlie’s ire, Billy just killed his cheating girlfriend, revealing himself to be psychopaths #1 and #7. With their friend and fellow psychopath, Hans Kieslowski (Christopher Walken), the group heads to the desert to finish the manuscript and have a final shootout with Charlie.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 meta manuscripts

#225. Will Ferrell

Ever since its start in the 1970s, Saturday Night Live has been a vetting ground for many comedians. The successful ones find their niche and develop recurring characters, eventually transferring these skits onto the big screen. Sometimes these films are successful and timeless. Movies like The Blues Brothers (1980) and Wayne’s World (1992) had their beginnings as bits on SNL. That being said, not all of the SNL films are that great (let’s all try to forget MacGruber (2010)). For Will Ferrell, his breakout SNL film was that of A Night at the Roxbury (1998). Since then, he has acted in numerous comedies, to various levels of success. And while most of the roles Ferrell takes on are rather crass, there are occasionally some gems that show he has a bit more talent. This week’s two films are just such examples of Will Ferrell’s acting talent.

Year: 2003
Rating: PG
Length: 97 minutes / 1.62 hours

For the most part, as I mentioned above, the movies Will Ferrell appears in are not family-friendly. A lot of them rely on shock-humor to be gross enough to elicit laughs for the sheer ridiculous nature of the act. Fortunately, there are a few gems safe for viewers of all ages. More recently, he has lent his voice to some animated fare, which has been quite good. Films like Curious George (2006), Megamind (2010), and The Lego Movie (2014) all have Ferrell’s distinctive voice in a lead role. Even though most people recognize Will Ferrell from such films as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006), many also know him from the modern Christmas classic, Elf (2003). While the majority of this film is appropriate for all ages, there are still elements of the “fart humor” that plagues his other films.

With an origin story akin to a Christmas-y The Jungle Book (1967), Santa Claus (Ed Asner) finds that a baby has been brought back to the North Pole in the now-empty sack of gifts. Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) agrees to raise the child, despite knowing the truth about the boy’s non-elf origins. Going by the name of Buddy, due to the brand-name on his diaper, this lost child eventually grows into manhood. Despite his obvious differences, Buddy (Will Ferrell) is convinced he is one of the elves. One day, he learns he is human and is now convinced he needs to go to New York City to find his father, Walter Hobbs (James Caan). Once there, he finds this world to be a lot harsher than the North Pole, but he makes the best of it, eventually saving the day and redeeming his father, who has been on the “naughty list” for many years.

Stranger than FictionStranger than Fiction
Year: 2006
Rating: PG-13
Length: 113 minutes / 1.88 hours

As is the case with other SNL-alumni (Steve Martin and Adam Sandler most notably), sometimes the draw of a more dramatic role can prove to be a shining gem in an otherwise lackluster filmography. These roles may still end up in comedies, but they’re a little more refined than the normal roles often filled by these actors. For Will Ferrell, his roles in such films as Bewitched (2005) and Everything Must Go (2010) show he has a greater range as an actor than just a slapstick foil. For me, I was quite skeptical when I went to go see Stranger than Fiction (2006), as I had become used to the types of characters Ferrell portrays. That being said, I was blown away by the heartfelt, down-to-earth performance in this film. I have seen a lot of Will Ferrell films over the years, but I must say that this one is his greatest achievement as an actor.

Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) works in the least-comedic of jobs: an agent for the Internal Revenue Service. Every day is a set routine for him, living his life according to his wristwatch. That is until he starts hearing a voice narrating the things he does. When his watch stops, he resets it and overhears the voice saying that this action has led to his eventual death. Concerned with this new development, he sees a psychiatrist, who suggests he discuss this narration with a literary expert. Enter Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), who attempts to place the narrator by having Harold figure out whether he’s in a tragedy or a comedy. The story teeters between comedy and tragedy as Harold lives his last days, eventually pushing a boy out of the way of an oncoming bus, which strikes him instead. In a turn of fortune, he lives, but only due to his wristwatch.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 fabulous Ferrell roles

Bacon #: 2 (Stranger than Fiction / Tom Hulce -> Animal House / Kevin Bacon)

#105. Dustin Hoffman

One of the enduring icons of the theater is the image of two masks named Sock and Buskin. These date back to the era of the Greeks where staged plays originated. Sock is the mask representing comedy and Buskin is the mask that stands for tragedy. Most films fall into these two categories, but what is more impressive is when an actor can equally play both roles. Some actors excel at comedy and don’t venture out into the realm of serious drama. In the same fashion, some actors are so serious that they don’t transfer over into comedy well. However, there are a few actors who do equally well in comedy and tragedy. Dustin Hoffman is one of these actors. This week’s two films look at one comedy and one tragedy from the diverse works of actor Dustin Hoffman.

Year: 1982
Rating: R
Length: 116 minutes / 1.93 hours

Although comedy rarely wins awards, it is still occasionally recognized. While Dustin Hoffman has won two Best Actor Oscars, he has also been nominated five other times, including the 1982 comedy, Tootsie. In a role like this, Dustin Hoffman has proven that he really doesn’t take himself seriously at times. Of course, other films show his lighter side, including Hook (1991), and (to an extent) Stranger Than Fiction (2006). He also provides the voice for Master Shifu in the Kung Fu Panda series. And yet, Tootsie remains Dustin Hoffman’s defining comedic role. I think it’s this level of versatility Hoffman exhibits that really draws me to him as one of my most favorite actors. Still, this is merely a personal bias, and others may have differing opinions.

Logic and perfection might get you far in some artistic fields like sculpture or painting, but in acting, it can create a lot of headaches for those who work around you. Until you’ve made a name for yourself, you can’t argue with the director about the minutiae of the script, especially since you’re only doing bit parts for commercials. However, if an actor were to use his perfectionism to create a female persona who could get a solid acting gig, he’d be set for quite a while. Of course, the challenge here is making sure the ruse is never figured out, otherwise your career would be immediately dead in the water. Add to this the temptation of getting closer to people in an assumed identity than you ever would as yourself and things aren’t going to end well at all.

Kramer vs. KramerKramer vs. Kramer
Year: 1979
Rating: PG
Length: 105 minutes / 1.75 hours

One of Dustin Hoffman’s Best Actor Oscars was for the Best Picture winner, Rain Man (1988). Much like how he could act like a woman in Tootsie, he showed the world that he could also easily portray the autistic savant, Raymond Babbitt. And yet, this performance was his second Best Actor win. About ten years before Rain Man, Hoffman starred in another Best Picture, this time by the name of Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). Granted, he was already nominated for the award two times before this for The Graduate (1967) and Midnight Cowboy (1969). It just wasn’t until he starred in this family courtroom drama that he was formally recognized for his talents. If anything, Kramer vs. Kramer shows Dustin Hoffman can take on characters who really have heart.

Merely one Oscar win away from being another “Big Five” winner, Kramer vs. Kramer delves into the lives of divorced parents Ted (Dustin Hoffman) and Joanna (Meryl Streep) and the effects of the divorce on their lives and the life of their son, Billy (Justin Henry). Since Ted was left with Billy, he has to adjust his world to accommodate for the child. This means becoming less of a workaholic and more of a loving father. Despite having left the family, Joanna is fighting for custody of Billy because she eventually comes around to the realization that a child needs a mother’s influence above all else. And yet, when it comes right down to it, Billy is old enough to be able to determine who he wants to stay with. The courts decide to let him choose in a heartwarming conclusion.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 Dustin Hoffman dramatis personae

Bacon #: 1 (Sleepers / Kevin Bacon)