Saturday, 17 March 2007

Stranger than Fiction & Joe vs the Volcano

Next to the quirky dysfunctional family comedy, one of my favourite genres is the quirky existential comedy. Stranger than Fiction is a great example of the latter and reminds me of one of the great movies of all time: Joe vs the Volcano.

Both of these films start with ordinary, lonely guys trapped in a bland existence working in the midst of mind-numbing meaninglessness (and both presented as dramatically soul-crushing by some of the visuals of their workplace). Both are struck by the possibility of impending death and have their lives shook up as a result. It's a great theme and both do a good job with it.

Joe vs the Volcano is, of course, in a league of its own. For a comedy, it has a unique ability to bring out strong reactions in those who see it. Check it out on imdb and you see an amazingly even range of votes from 1 through 10. I constantly lend this movie out to friends as one of the best movies made and have them bring it back either agreeing or totally confused about my taste in movies. Some of them watch it a couple of times to try to figure out what I could have possibly seen in it.

First of all, the opening scene set over "16 Tons" is worth the price of a rental by itself. Once you've seen that and the next sequence with its faulty flourescent lights, cold stale coffee, insane boss and deadening relational climate, you can't help but beg God to protect you from ever ending up in Joe's shoes.

From there it's a non-stop movement of right-brained comedy moments and existential awakenings that work brilliantly together except for those who can't enter into its dream-like absurdity. It's a cheezy romance, of course, but it makes plenty enough fun of its own cheeziness that you can't fault it for that. And in the process of facing his fears, the possibility of heroism, and the reality of death, Joe opens himself not only to romance, but to God and to relationships in general.

Stranger than Fiction doesn't quite sustain the same level of right-brained, absurd brilliance, though it gets pretty close. His wait for the plot to find him in his apartment has just that quality, and the lit prof (Hoffman) is perfect. The computer graphics that are creatively overlaid throughout the film give you glimpses into his obsessive compulsive brain, the watch adds some existential symbolism and, of course, the main plot feature of finding his life narrated adds a wonderfully novel element (sorry for that, it just slipped out). The occasional scenes with apparently irrelevant characters add a touch of mystery. And like in Joe, the romance is a part but doesn't overly dominate the bigger picture of a man coming to life.

There are a few weak details (the one that stuck out the most for me was the witty, flirtatious character seeming to come out of nowhere for who Crick seemed to be before that). A few other elements seemed like they maybe could have used a bit more development (like Emma Thompson's author character). But, overall, a pretty great movie.

Existential therapists have said for a long time that helping people to face the reality of death instead of denying it is central to living a good life. As a therapist, these movies leave me wondering how to provide the diagnoses of brain clouds or narrate someone's impending death in order to encourage that powerful awakening that just might be able to free someone from their fears.

P.S. I just saw Stranger than Fiction again with friends, and found it to be at least as enjoyable the second time around - a good sign of lasting quality. It even made me question my comment above about Crick's wittiness which fit better than I had thought. And I also appreciated how the potential for interest on so many fronts with this movie - for example, I can't believe I didn't comment on the discussion potential for how we "story our lives." And I forgot to rate this (as I have tended to do). So I'm going right for the top on this one. **** (and I await your viewing, Vic, to see if we can award our first "Two Mugs Up.")


  1. great start to your blog- theology & ethics of film, media and culture has been a passion of mine too since post grad days at edin univ and work in dance music industry- good detail in tracing of inner technology of redemptive violence and how it works in this film.

  2. Walter, I may not love Joe vs. the Volcano as much as you but, as you know, I also think it's one of the better comedies ever made and I completely agree with your comments. As to Stranger than Fiction, I look forward to watching it in the near future.

  3. i'm glad someone else out there love Joe vs the Volcano. I am with you on loving the existential comedies. I think it's my favorite genre and i really enjoyed Stranger than Fiction