Friends insisted that I had to see this, saying it “felt like a Charlie Kaufman film”. When you stop and think about it, the fact that ordinary people would use those words to praise a movie is almost incredible: somehow, Kaufman’s self-referential, reality-bending films have become a marketable subgenre in Hollywood.
Unfortunately, director Marc Forster and screenwriter Zach Helm have missed out on the most elusive element that makes Kaufman’s intricately constructed work more than just a clever exercise: the depth that allows his characters to feel like real people, even when the narrative is breaking down and recreating itself all around them. By contrast, Stranger than Fiction isn’t sure if it wants to be a comedy that relies on stereotypes in order to accentuate the humor, or a drama with the absurdities played as deadpan as possible. In the end, it splits the difference and mostly fails at both.
The film’s opening narration introduces us to Harold Crick, played by Will Ferrell in an economic performance where we can feel Ferrell’s natural zaniness coursing underneath Crick’s bland exterior, just begging to be let out. A narrator fills us in on the details of Crick’s life. He works as an effortlessly efficient IRS auditor, doesn’t have much of a personal life, and insists that his entire existence is perfectly organized. Forster finds a nice way of visualizing this last quirk by showing Harold surrounded by shifting diagrams and mathematical equations, but in one of the film’s many missteps, these visual effects show up only sporadically throughout the rest of the story, as if the filmmakers couldn’t decide to either fully utilize them or get rid of them after paying the special effects studio a lot of money to create something so nifty-looking.
Before long, Harold can hear this narrator too, and like any sensible human being he’s alarmed by the idea of some disembodied voice following him about and commenting on his actions with an air of snarky detachment. When a psychologist fails to help him with his problem, he turns to literature professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) who is quick to believe Crick, maybe because this unique problem is a rare chance for him to show off the depth of his knowledge. Hilbert asks Crick a number of bizarre questions (“On a scale of one to ten, what are the chances that you’ll be assassinated—one being highly unlikely, ten being you’re expecting it around every corner?”) designed to figure out what type of story Crick is in, and from there, what author it is who’s been narrating his life.
The answer, it turns out, is Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a caustic, chain-smoking recluse whose literary specialty is heartbreaking tragedies. Not exactly good news for Harold, who has recently found something that has blasted him out of his old dull routine and inspired him – in the long tradition of uplifting movies – to want to Live Life to the Fullest.
Anyone who has ever seen a movie, any movie, can guess what that something is. Harold is assigned to audit a baker named Ana Pascal, and for possibly the first time in his staid life, he begins to feel the stirrings of love. Maggie Gyllenhaal, an open-faced, adorable actress, is a perfect choice for the role, but it’s such an underwritten cliché that I think Gyllenhaal could have played it in her sleep. Her flirtations with Harold are occasionally amusing – Ana’s bubbly sweetness a nice contrast to Harold’s monotone – but they’re hardly believable. What does she see in him, really? We never get a good answer for that.
Forster and Helm also drop the ball on the narration itself, which is more of a gimmick than a well thought-out element of the plot. It disappears almost entirely during the middle portion of the film, but even when it’s a constant nuisance to Harold’s life, Helm only comes up with a few obvious gags, like having Crick scream “Shut up!” to the heavens above when he becomes frustrated with the voice not giving him a moment to himself. Or when a Harold tells a co-worker that he’s being followed, the co-worker sensibly points out, “How are you being followed? You’re not moving.” Harold responds: “It’s by a voice. I’m being followed by a woman’s voice.” That’s a nice setup, but how about taking this outrageous concept and really running with it?
Watching Stranger than Fiction I couldn’t help but be reminded of the omniscient narrator of the untimely-cancelled sitcom, Arrested Development (the two both share actor Tony Hale). On that show, the narrator would interrupt characters to quickly point out that they were lying or to share unusual information nobody in the audience would know. Compared to that level of bravura, Stranger than Fiction’s jokes never rise beyond simply pointing out how crazy a man would look if he thought there was a little voice in his head talking about him.
The film’s one live wire is Emma Thompson as Kay Eiffel. Paralyzed with writer’s block, she wanders about a hospital looking for terminal cases, and later stands by a highway in the pouring rain and muses on the likelihood of bad weather causing a fatal accident – she’s practically a spiritual sister to Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club, someone so disconnected from reality that the pain of ordinary people is a cathartic learning experience. When Harold and Kay come face to face, we learn that there’s even more to their relationship than expected: Kay isn’t just narrating Harold’s life, her latest book is his life, and everything she writes about him comes true (the rules seem to dictate that she has to actually bang it out on her typewriter in order to make it happen).
Harold and Jules realize that Kay’s book will be a masterpiece for the ages, but only if she sticks to her original ending and dooms Harold to a meaningless death. Suddenly, this lightweight comedy is tackling a tantalizing – if completely hypothetical – question: which is more important, a work of art or a human life? Sure, it seems like the answer is obvious, but Harold is going to die eventually anyway, and he’s already squandered most of his life thus far. Should Shakespeare have sacrificed Hamlet or The Tempest in order to save an anonymous person in the 17th century?
The ending plays fair and is true to what each of the main players – Harold, Kay, and Jules – has learned about life, love and art thus far. I just wish Stranger than Fiction made their journeys more emotionally honest, or just plain funnier. At one point, Professor Hilbert tells Harold, “The thing to determine conclusively is whether you are in a comedy or a tragedy.” You wish Forster or Helm had asked themselves the same thing.
The DVD for Stranger than Fiction contains six behind-the-scenes features and two intriguing deleted scenes. Most of the behind-the-scenes features are of the typical effusive praise, Hollywood circle jerk variety, as we’ve told over and over again how honored everyone was to work with each other and words like “brilliant”, “visionary”, and “genius” are trotted out to describe everyone in the cast and crew. The feature, Actors in Search of a Story, applauds the entire cast of the film (right down to the woman who plays Harold’s psychologist for about two minutes of screen time), Building the Team profiles director Marc Forster and some of his crew, and Words on a Page focuses on budding young screenwriter Zach Helm. Words on a Page is the most interesting of the three, since it stops the praise for a short while so Helm can discuss the creative origins of the film.
I couldn’t summon the will power to watch Picture a Number, a 17-minute look at how the visual effects for the diagrams Harold sees in his head were created.
On Location in Chicago is, not surprisingly, a closer look at the locations of the movie, while On the Set is a short, candid montage of cast and crew acting goofy in-between takes. It’s nothing particularly substantial, but God almighty, after the rehearsed talking points of the other features it was a welcome breath of fresh air.
The deleted scenes are actually a pair of faux interviews between a cheerfully clueless news reporter and the hapless authors who appear on her show (in the film, these clips appear in the background of other scenes). The introduction informs us that they’re mostly improvised, and watching Thompson subtly make fun of the possibly-illiterate woman asking about her work is funny and revealing all at once. Maybe compared to Harold Crick’s empty existence, Kay Eiffel is the real story.