Stranger than Fiction (2006)

Ever think your life would make for a good story? Be careful what you wish for. Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is hearing voices. They aren’t telling him to kill or do anything subversive. In fact it’s just one voice, an English woman, and she isn’t instructing Crick to do anything. No, she’s more so just… narrating. She comes in and out and expresses the doldrums of Crick?s life. He’s an IRS agent whose life revolves around order, repetition, and numbers. We can even see his inner tabulations thanks to some snazzy onscreen visual effects. Crick is sent to audit Anna (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a baker with a disdain for civil servants and authority. Crick is stricken by this shrewd beauty and finds himself wanting her, something the Narrator affirms for him. Crick’s life takes a dour turn when the Narrator lets on that Harold Crick had set in motion his “imminent death.” Crick is confused and seeks advice from Professor Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) an expert on literature. Then they figure out the Narrator is Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a famous writer who has the unfortunate habit of bumping off every one of her main characters.

Make no mistake, Stranger than Fiction is funny, but it’s a different kind of funny than most people are accustomed to with Ferrell. In my theater, I kept an eye on a gaggle of teenagers sitting several rows in front of me. I just wanted to observe their body language and what I saw was a lot of fidgeting, getting up for trips to bathrooms and popcorn, and lots of whispery talk. I can only imagine the disappointment of those teenagers expecting Ferrell to rip his clothes off and run around like a buffoon. They were likely busily thumbing away at their ever-present cell phones, text messaging their friends. People that are looking for a wild, sidesplitting, slapstick comedy are going to shaking their head. Stranger than Fiction is funny, but it’s in a very dry, witty way, much like British humor; it’s a humor you can admire for being clever but might not make you roll in any aisle.

The biggest fans of Stranger than Fiction will be bookworms. This is a very literate movie that works better for those with an appreciation or outright love of literature and storytelling. Professor Hilbert doesn’t initially believe Crick until he learns that Crick’s narrator said, “Little did he know.” That, ladies and gents, is all a professor of literature needs. He has to rule out what kind of story Crick may be apart of, so he subjects Crick to a series of hilarious questions along the lines of treasure-inheriting, nemesis-making, and magical-creature befriending. Crick keeps a notebook to tally examples in his life that may point to whether he is part of a Comedy or a Tragedy. Professor Hilton even explains the difference: in grand Shakespearean tradition, a comedy ends with people getting hitched and a tragedy ends with people getting snuffed. This is all fabulously witty and extremely fun, but I can think you’ll see why hard-core fans of Old School and Talladega Nights might be heading for the exits.

Writer Zach Helm has created a wonderfully whimsical tale that’s trippy but manages to still have warmth and a firm heart. It’s far more embraceable a movie than, say, Adaptation, and less smug. He has a smart sense of humor and loves deconstructing literature, like the Jasper Fforde (The Thursday Next books) of screenwriting. We are really sucked into the movie from the moment we can hear Thompson. The story has an innocence to it and this existential comedy feels out there but still grounded; it’s surprisingly poignant and full of dramatic revelations. Even better, Helm has done something that few have achieved: he wrote a story-within-a-story that works. Kay’s narrative voice is highly droll in her observations on Harold Crick’s life. It sounds like a genuine novel, and on top of that, a novel I would enjoy reading. Stranger than Fiction is all the proof I need that Helm is a talent to keep track of.

The performers all seem to have the same affection for the material. Ferrell is making that leap from funnyman into leading man, the same dramatic territory Robin Williams first tiptoed in Good Morning Vietnam and, likewise, Jim Carrey approached in The Truman Show. Ferrell won’t turn any heads but he underplays his performance maturely, playing a sad but sweet drone of a human being finally taking charge of his life under very insane circumstances. There’s a quiet moment toward the end where Ferrell is told he must accept his fate and he sits, shell-shocked, tearing up, his voice getting softer with every word. It’s only a moment but it piques my interest in what Ferrell may have in the tank. The comedy he can do in spades, including a desperate moment when he tries narrating his own life to coax his Narrator out of hiding.

Who will turn heads, however, is Gyllenhaal. I can already see a nation of teen boys falling in love with her tattooed, punky baker. To them I say, get in line pals, Gyllenhaal has made me dot my I’s with hearts ever since her star-making performance in 2002’s kinky romantic comedy, Secretary. She’s easy to fall in love with and expresses a fragile compassion to her role. The romance between Anna and Crick is unexpected but these two people need each other, and you feel that need as you watch their eyes light up as their relationship blossoms. Late moments between them add to the tenderness of the film and you will be on your knees pleading Crick is spared so he can return to loving Anna. I think Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World” will become a potential staple on romantic teenage mix CDs sent to their sweethearts from now on.

Thompson and Hoffman have appealing supporting performances. Thompson has marvelous fun thinking of different grisly outcomes in store for Crick. Her interaction with the hospital staff to see the “not gonna make it people” is a howl. But Thompson is too good of an actress to play it straight. Once she discovers the life-altering implications of her writing she is crushed by guilt, obsessed over killing good people cruelly. Frankly, if I had anyone narrating my life, Thompson’s voice would definitely rank high. Hoffman plays a dedicated literary professor like a straight man, and everything seems on the level for him, even the fantastic. It’s a nice touch for a film that doesn’t require broad strokes.

The movie doesn’t have the depth of feeling or dark turnarounds that I know Charlie Kaufman would have done. Stranger than Fiction has a lot of fun with a very ripe premise, and is very intellectually stimulating, but you do feel like it could have gone further, exploring the reaches and implications of its metaphysical setup. What if someone who read Kay’s manuscript thought it was such a masterpiece, a shining light of literature that could move mountains, that they knew Crick must die, and that they must kill him to make certain of it. Or what about the relationship between author and character, and the role each has over the other and perhaps a battle over the future, a typewriter, and a happy ending at the end of a tunnel. However, while all of these options would further explore the novel premise, it would betray the movie’s whimsical tone. This isn’t a very dark movie. It has an authentic sweetness to it, and Crick is a gentle and kind man, and to do anything too heavy would work against the film’s tone. The movie explores existential queries and the topics can be grim, but ultimately Stranger than Fiction is life affirming.

Stranger than fiction also has a buoyant, unexpectedly pleasing romance to it. Again, it doesn’t show the depth of love and human feeling that Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine could, but this is an unfair comparison. This romance is more a subplot that carries increasing weight thanks to heartwarming performances and the winsomely adorable Gyllenhaal. The romance in Eternal Sunshine was the story, and everything else was outside variable coming into contact. It might sound dismissive to call Stranger than Fiction as decaf Charlie Kaufman, but it really is a compliment. Kaufman is the most exciting, brilliant, creative, insightful, and whacked out screenwriter working today. I would give one of my kidneys to write even one story that could be described as decaf Kaufman. Stranger than Fiction may not examine as many themes, conflicts, or relationships as Kaufman might with the material, but this movie is a sweet fable that floats by like a fluffy cloud on a sunny day. It’s just so damn pleasant you sort of soak it in and fall in love, not wanting to leave.

Stranger than Fiction is strange, all right, but gloriously so. Scribe Zach Helm has concocted an existential fairy tale aimed for bookworms and outsiders. The premise is clever but the film doesn’t stop there, and Helm explores the implications of his premise with whimsy, charm, and a sweetness that is hard to rebuke. The wacky story seems reminiscent of Kaufman’s works, but it has a more heartwarming and embraceable appeal. Great performances from a game cast help to push the material even further into excellence. It has a small handful of flaws, perhaps a too limited scope, but that doesn’t stop Stranger than Fiction from being one of the best stories of 2006 and one of the best movies too.

Nate?s Grade: A-

About natezoebl

One man. Many movies. I am a cinephile (which spell-check suggests should really be "epinephine"). I was told that a passion for movies was in his blood since I was conceived at a movie convention. While scientifically questionable, I do remember a childhood where I would wake up Saturday mornings, bounce on my parents' bed, and watch Siskel and Ebert's syndicated TV show. That doesn't seem normal. At age 17, I began writing movie reviews and have been unable to stop ever since. I was the co-founder and chief editor at PictureShowPundits.com (2007-2014) and now write freelance. I have over 1400 written film reviews to my name and counting. I am also a proud member of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association (COFCA) since 2012. In my (dwindling) free time, I like to write uncontrollably. I wrote a theatrical genre mash-up adaptation titled "Our Town... Attacked by Zombies" that was staged at my alma mater, Capital University in the fall of 2010 with minimal causalities and zero lawsuits. I have also written or co-written sixteen screenplays and pilots, with one of those scripts reviewed on industry blog Script Shadow. Thanks to the positive exposure, I am now also dipping my toes into the very industry I've been obsessed over since I was yea-high to whatever people are yea-high to in comparisons.

Posted on November 12, 2006, in 2006 Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: