Jslk’s review published on Letterboxd:
This is a solid film in many aspects. It’s well directed, well shot, well-acted—especially by Gary Oldman in the titular role. These are all things that you’d expect from a Fincher film. Ironically, the weakest part of the film seems to be its script, since the story is about an accomplished screenwriter. It’s not that it’s bad, it just feels rather pedestrian…. workmanlike even, and as cine-literate viewers today, we usually expect more from stories that feature writers. The reason for that is because these type of stories allows for a lot of freedom to play around with the narrative, since the depicted writer can themselves be writing/altering the very story we’re watching. “Adaptation,” is a good, somewhat hidden example of this. “Stranger than Fiction” utilizes this notion in a much more visible manner. Movies like “Barton Fink” or “Swimming Pool” play heavily with the notion of a slippery narrative merged with the inner angst, neuroses, and fantasies—whether sexual or violent—of main characters who, in the act of trying to overcome writer’s block, are psychologically broken down in the process. The stories they’re writing is ambiguously merged with the larger story they’re a part of, merged further with their deteriorating mind-states, and we the audience often can’t discern what level of reality is “true” or not. The mere act of depicting a writer in a completely “straight” manner today feels old hat.
This was based on a screenplay that Fincher’s father wrote, and I think his fidelity to it made him reluctant to tinker with it in any major way. As such, we can only appreciate this on its traditional merits: the cinematography, acting, directing and so on. And it is indeed worth watching on those aspects alone. The main themes the movie seemed to be driving at didn’t really have to do with aspects of claimed authorship, but was instead focused on two things. The first: on the depiction of the Golden Age Hollywood system, with Mankiewicz portrayed as an honest but flawed man navigating through an industry full of inept, ego-centric buffoons. The second seemed to be more towards what “The Girl with a Pearl Earring” was aiming for: in the examination of the strange, alchemical fusion of contrasting elements needed in order to create a bonafide masterpiece. Oldman excels (as expected) in his role as someone who puts on the airs of a drunken clown that acerbically points out the hypocrisies of the world around him. I thought the most interesting supporting roles (though limited) was in a trio of female characters portrayed by Lilly Collins, Tuppence Middleston, and Monica Gossman. They’re shown as a kind of polar-balancing support system that provides Mankiewicz with the stability he needs in his real life in order for him to unleash "creative chaos" on page.
This is by no means a bad film, it just feels a bit disappointing in its creative lack of structural exploration, and how it also feels like we’ve seen bits and pieces of this movie before in many other films. I don’t know if Fincher can create a bad film even if he tried, this simply felt old-fashioned—not in its period accurate depiction (which was superb on all fronts), but rather in its uninspired thematic and narrative construction.