Stranger Than Fiction (review)
By the Book
You’re thinking Stranger Than Fiction is gonna be one of those mind-benders like Adaptation or Being John Malkovich, but you’d be wrong. This ain’t no Charlie Kaufman head trip, one that leaves you dizzy in the brain and feeling like you’ve been to the Moon and back. This is much sweeter, much more soulful… much more human. Or much more human-scaled, at least. Kaufman is scary-brilliant, like he’s an alien observing us here on planet Earth from a perspective so removed from our own that we could only ever grasp a sliver of what goes on in his head. But Fiction, from first-time screenwriter Zach Helm — and good news: his next script is already in production — is huggably brilliant, like it peers right into your heart to nod its head at how your secret wishes for yourself, for love and friendship and purpose, are exactly what it has in mind too.
As a writer myself, Fiction called to mind one of my favorite movies about being a writer: Wonder Boys. In that underappreciated flick from a few years back, Tobey Maguire’s young author asks himself something like, “Am I the hero of my own life?” though I’m not sure he ever reaches a conclusion about that. Here, however, IRS agent Harold Crick comes to realize that he is, indeed, the hero of his own life — a literal literary hero — when he begins to hear a woman’s voice narrating his life as if he were a character in a book. And he is. He doesn’t know this for certain for quite a while, but the film — directed by Marc Forster, who beautifully explored the idea of a writer’s creative inspiration in Finding Neverland — jumps back and forth between Harold trying to figure out how this voice knows so much about him, including things he’s only ever merely thought, and legendary reclusive novelist Karen Eiffel, who is suffering from writer’s block in the midst of her new book: she can’t come up with a way to kill her protagonist, Harold Crick, mild-mannered tax auditor.
Fiction is wonderfully unapologetic fantasy: it offers no explanation for its deliciously bizarre premise, it just has a whole lot of thinky fun with its ramifications. Like Harold’s desperate turn to a university professor of literature (Dustin Hoffman: Runaway Jury, Confidence) in an attempt to figure out just what the heck is going on: Is Harold’s story going to end up a tragedy, or a comedy? Just how important could a simple literary conceit — such as the one embodied in the phrase “little did he know…” — be to one man’s life?
Little did he know today was the day he was going to die. Or meet the woman of his dreams. Or whatever momentous occasion was going to transpire. Is Harold fictional, or not? Don’t we all live in our own stories, in which “little did we know” rules our lives? Fate and chance and opportunity… Fiction launches into wild fantasy to ground itself warmly in reality, in the real world where of course writers torment themselves over killing off a fictional character — Emma Thompson (Nanny McPhee, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) as Karen is an agreeable basket case, a creative neurotic that any creative neurotic will recognize: of course fictional characters are real; of course they are. In the real world where none of us know what actions we take are important, and which aren’t.
Except, now, Harold does know. He hears his narrator announce that “little does he know” that his own tragic death is imminent. How does that knowledge change what we do, and what we don’t do? The layers of complicated meta-ness get even more enchantingly confused now: Is Harold a fictional character in a fictional story in a “real” movie, or is he a “real” character in a “real” story in a fictional movie? In a way, the uncertainty over who or what Harold is mimicks how Karen comes to feel about him, mimicks how writers come to feel about their own creations — if you’re in tears, like I was, by the end of the film, you’ll start to understand a writer’s relationship with her characters, how they come to life and can sometimes feel more real than actual flesh-and-blood people. Fiction, in the end, becomes all about the extraordinary power of, well, fiction.
But it’s also about Harold, and whether he’s real or fictional or some sort of strange creature in a box of meta mirrors, he’s someone you’re delighted to see beginning to grasp how tenuous life is. And so here’s the other film Fiction reminded me of, in more ways than one: Groundhog Day. I think it’s clear now that the smartest thing Will Ferrell has ever done is follow the path laid out by Bill Murray, turning in his clown’s nose for serious stories, for all that they still retain a certain dollop of comedy. Ferrell (Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Curious George) is lovely here, like I never could have imagined he’d be (I’d have said the same thing about Murray before Groundhog Day): his Harold is a bland-as-beige invisible man moving robotically through life until he gets that wakeup call and starts really living. As refreshingly twisted and original as Fiction ends up being, by the time it’s finished, all you care about is Harold, and whether he will come to fully appreciate everything he’s set out to appreciate.
The blending of the intellectual and the emotional that Stranger Than Fiction achieves is so rare, and so rarely done this well. So few films are so fully satisfying on every level like this one is. Watch for it to beome an endlessly rewatchable classic like Groundhog Day.
(Technorati tags: Stranger Than Fiction, Zach Helm, Marc Forster, Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman)