Stranger Than Fiction (review)

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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.

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Sat, Nov 11, 2006 9:37pm

Just got back from this, and it is every bit of everything you said it is. Definitely near the top of my list for this year. *lurve*

Sun, Nov 12, 2006 9:31pm

Could’nt disagree more. Although a big Ferrell fan, he seemed as bored with the material as the audience I sat with was.The entire viewing was peppered with forced laughter by an audience straining to be entertained. The only tears I shed by the end of the movie were those born of boredom. As for similarities to Groundhog Day, I didn’t see any. As entertaining as Groundhog Day was, this movie was every bit as boring. Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, I too felt as if I were trapped in an event that would never end.

Sun, Nov 12, 2006 11:02pm

Although a big Ferrell fan

Anyone looking for *Anchorman* and *Elf* in *Stranger Than Fiction* will surely be disappointed. It’s not a film for “Will Ferrell fans” — but anyone who’s hated most of what he’s done before will be surprised by his performance here.

I wonder if people who were “Bill Murray fans” from *Caddyshack* and *Stripes* were bored by *Groundhog Day*…

Mon, Nov 13, 2006 7:18pm

Yeah. I’d say this one is a Will Ferrell movie only in the same way that Punch Drunk Love is an Adam Sandler movie, and that The Truman Show is a Jim Carrey movie. Actually, now that I think about it, if this is Ferrell’s Truman Show, I can’t wait to see his Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind!

I saw this movie again yesterday, and it was even better the second time. In fact, I am going to go ahead and call it the best thing I have seen this year. (Out of 69 flicks, if you were curious!) Also, the woman I saw it with on Sunday pointed out something I couldn’t believe I missed.

Karen Eiffel did not actually break from her modus operandi. The hero of the story did die at the end. But it was the watch, not Harold.

And, while I am playing in this spoiler tag, I have to say that Emma Thompson’s performance when Karen meets Harold for the first time is one of the most fantastic things I have ever seen on film. It’s right up there with the Johnny Cash audition in Walk the Line.

Thu, Nov 16, 2006 11:04am

I think that Mark Collette put it rather well in the _Tyler Morning Telegraph_: “When I left the theater, I got in my car, turned off my perpetually running radio, and thought for a long time before I moved. It’s been a while since a film has done that.”

I loved it. I’d agree to say that this is the best movie I’ve seen all year. Pirates special effects were awesome, but the overall value of this movie is so much greater than any amount of imaginative CG or slapstick. Bravo!

>>The hero of the story did die at the end. But it was the watch, not Harold.

Fri, Dec 01, 2006 10:15pm

I personaly love this movie the casting was grate and i left you thinking until the end the clever and witty humor is deliverd pefectly the movie give you a whole new perspective on life and it makes you see how some random events can contribute to you possible alterable destiney