Stranger Than Fiction (2006) / Comedy-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for disturbing images, sexuality, brief languag and nudity
Running Time: 113 min.
Cast: Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Queen Latifah, Tom Hulce, Linda Hunt
Director: Marc Forster
Screenplay: Zach Helm
Review published November 12, 2006
Will Ferrell (Talladega Nights, Winter Passing) stars as Harold Crick, a mild-mannered IRS auditor who suffers from some sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder that sees him doing things like counting strokes he makes on his toothbrush as well as the steps he takes on his daily visit to catch his bus to work. Harold also finds that he is the living embodiment of a fictional character created by esteemed author Karen Eiffel (Thompson, Nanny McPhee), whose voice enters Harold's head from time to time, describing his activities in such a fashion that only he can hear. He sees a shrink, but she thinks he is schizophrenic, but does suggest he might find some answer by seeking an expert on literature. That person is Professor Jules Hilbert (Hoffman, Meet the Fockers), who helps Harold solve the mystery of his life, but it may be too late, as Eiffel is known to have the protagonists of all of her works die at the end. Now it's time for Harold to become the first to "meet his maker" before he dies, and hope that he can reverse her decision to snuff him out just at the time he might have found his first taste of happiness.
Zach Helm writes this high concept fantasy that some might think to be the offspring of the works of Andrew Niccol (The Truman Show, Simone) and Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich), although to an admittedly more mainstream audience. That's not to say that this is a lesser work for most audiences, as it does have a bit more heart than those other two creations, even if it falls short intellectually.
Benefiting from a rare subtle performance by Will Ferrell, Stranger Than Fiction doesn't really draw us in due to its flights of fancy or mental trickery, but through our identification with the humanity of its main fictional character. Farrell's straight-faced turn isn't a knockout by any means, but it is effective in helping us to care about his plight, as his lonely, morose appearance suggests an empty shell of a man who is often confused about his surroundings, finally feeling like he is the master of his own destiny, only to have this feeling shatter when he realizes that everything about himself is destined in advance.
It does take some time before its fantasy premise begins to pay dividends, so a bit of patience is a must in order to extract the maximum enjoyment, as the entire plot is contingent on our identification with Harold Crick, as well as the suspension of disbelief that a fictional character and his author can share the same universe. It's not a plausible set up, but credit director Marc Forster (Stay, Finding Neverland) for taking everything at face value, never making the mistake of trying to rationalize some half-assed reason behind it all.
The end of the film is a bit tricky, as it has the choice of going for high art tragedy or crowd-pleasing comedy, and this is where Stranger Than Fiction finally shows its true colors as a horse of a different breed from Truman and Adaptation. Art imitates art, as the thematic predecessors invested far more thematic structure in what it is to be real or human, while the main thrust of Stranger Than Fiction is in whether or not it is indeed human to see characters as merely a means to an ultimate end, or if it is more true to the characters for an author to see her characters the way we see them, as real beings within their defined universe.
High concept comedies are always a tricky business, as we have to believe that such an implausible set of events could actually occur in order for us to not walk away from it shaking our heads. On second thought, Stranger Than Fiction doesn't ask us to believe in its fantasy world so much as get us to care more about its characters and less about its story, which, as the film drives to its make or break climax, is really the crux of the matter.
They say that there are only two certainties in life -- death and taxes -- but in the world of Stranger Than Fiction, nothing is ever certain.
©2006 Vince Leo