Stranger Than Fiction is a hard movie to describe. Director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Monster’s Ball) moves from drama to comedy in this tale of an IRS worker named Harold Crick (Will Ferrell). Crick is the kind of guy who has everything in life on a routine. He brushes his teeth with the same number of strokes each morning and he walks the exact same number of steps to the bus stop before work. He says little, reacts even less, and would probably realize that he’s desperately unhappy if he ever stopped to ponder an emotion. The only pleasure he seems to derive is from a baker named Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who he is kind of attracted to. But since he’s auditing her – and because she loathes the IRS – it’s tempered joy at best.
One day, Crick starts to hear a woman’s voice in his head. She appears to be narrating his life. What starts off as annoying turns downright scary when the narrator makes mention of Crick’s “imminent death.” He promptly visits a shrink who tries to put him on medication, but Crick doesn’t think he’s crazy. Eventually he seeks out a college literature professor named Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), who helps him dissect the problem from a literary point of view. (In my favorite scene, they engage in their first task: trying to figure out what kind of story he’s in.) Hilbert suggests that Crick shake up his routine to veer from the narrator’s plot. This approach goes a long way in helping him defrost Ana’s chilly exterior. He even follows up on a long-standing desire to learn how to play guitar.
Later on, Crick discovers that the narrator is Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a famous author trying to get past her decade-long writer’s block that has taken a small toll on her sanity. She is working on an important new story about a man named – you guessed it – Harold Crick. But in order for the book to work, Crick absolutely must die at the end. When she discovers that he’s real, she starts to have second thoughts. Her subject repeatedly begs her not to kill him, especially since life is just starting to get good. The question is, will she follow her instincts and kill him and, if so, can he accept that fate?
Let’s get the negative stuff out of the way first. I really liked Stranger Than Fiction but, truthfully, I expected to love it. With its inventive, existential premise and left-of-center characters, the movie seems to fall in the same category as the films of genius screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). The difference is that Kaufman’s pictures leave me feeling exhilarated. There’s a tremendous sense of joy that comes in the way their plots twist all over themselves like a pretzel; it’s the same quality that makes me want to see them multiple times. Stranger Than Fiction doesn’t quite achieve that quality because it doesn’t always take full advantage of its concept. There were occasional moments where I wished it had let go a little more. For example, Crick knows he’s about to face imminent death, yet we never quite see the total results of the paranoia that would certainly ensue. Same goes for Eiffel. It’s clear that she’s gone a little mad, but we don’t see much about why. There was a chance to go into more depth on both these counts.
This is not nearly a fatal flaw – it’s just enough of one to keep Stranger Than Fiction from being the masterpiece it had the potential to be. There’s still plenty here to make it worth seeing, starting with the performance from Will Ferrell. Toning down the outrageousness that he brings to comedies like Anchorman and Talladega Nights, the actor manages to be extremely funny by doing very little. There’s a weird laconic quality to Harold Crick. He doesn’t live so much as exist. In other words, he leaves no particular mark on the world – the world leaves a mark on him. It’s hard to play a person who is, essentially, a blank slate. Ferrell does it beautifully.
He’s backed by a tremendous cast, all of whom turn in first-rate work. Maggie Gyllenhaal delivers another good performance as the anarchic baker whose soft side eventually comes out. It’s amazing to compare what she does in this movie with her recent work in World Trade Center. You can see that she’s got a ton of range and can really get inside the skin of whomever she’s playing. Meanwhile, Emma Thompson effectively portrays the insanity that often underlies creativity, and Dustin Hoffman is perfect as the worldly, open-minded professor. My wife commented that Hilbert more or less just accepts Crick’s story. The beauty of Hoffman’s performance is that we don’t question his failure to question Crick.
The movie has an appealing concept and many clever twists throughout. Best of all is the message, which is about learning to appreciate the little things in life. Sometimes we don’t notice the joys around us until someone points them out, or until we realize we’re in danger of losing them. Crick learns this lesson, but so does everyone else in the movie. Stranger Than Fiction is ultimately about the process of waking up from a deep slumber. Harold Crick has regimented his life to the point where he’s on autopilot. Only when something threatens to shake up his very existence does he start to take a look around and appreciate the world around him: love, friendship, the chance to pursue a hobby, etc. While most of us probably don’t share his tendency to count the number of strokes when we brush our teeth, it’s safe to say that many people will identify with the moral at some level.
So while there may have been some room for improvement, the movie still has a lot of things to recommend it. Stranger Than Fiction manages to be funny and poignant at the same time, and it delivers a satisfying ending without ever selling out the message. It’s definitely worth a look.
( out of four)
Stranger Than Fiction is rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, sexuality, brief language and nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.
To learn more about this movie, check out AskMen.com: Stranger Than Fiction
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