Stranger than Fiction

2007-03-19 16:01

Life is simple for bachelor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell). As a tax inspector, he spends his days accounting for everything around him, from tax files to the strokes of his toothbrush. Life begins and ends with numbers. Until, that is, he begins to hear a voice narrating his every action, as he puts it, “accurately and with a better vocabulary”. Even worse, this narrator seems intent on killing him off. Convinced he is not crazy, but rather part of a story, Harold seeks out literary theorist Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) to help him find the author, Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), and convince her to change the ending of his story.


Mixing comedy with intelligence isn’t normally Hollywood’s strongpoint. After all, films that feature people getting hit in the groin repeatedly are easier to sell than ones that require the audience to think a little. That’s why a film like Stranger than Fiction is such a breath of fresh air.

Like the wonderful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind it has the courage (or perhaps the cheek) to walk the tightrope of high concept cleverness, risking the credibility of the life-affirming message it is so eager to sell. It’s not that we’re averse to buying this cuddly coda - well-tuned sentiment is as irresistible to most of us as popcorn – it’s more that excessive cleverness can quickly become obscure and self-defeating. Just look at the interesting but deeply flawed I “heart” Huckabees.

For all its ingenuity, Stranger than Fiction is never obscure. We’ve all imagined our lives as the centre of a movie (ala The Truman Show), or wondered whether our entire existences are being played out in some cosmic imagination (The Matrix springs to mind). Like those films Stranger than Fiction succeeds because it never lets us look too closely at the mechanics on which the story is built. Just how Harold can simultaneously be real and a character in a novel is never resolved, and it’s a credit to the screenwriter (débutante Zach Helm) that it doesn’t really bother us.

After all, who wants to bother with nit picking realism when there is such a feast of wit to enjoy? Stranger than Fiction is the kind of film that knows how to have fun with its premise – juggling literary puns and clever plot devices with light-hearted abandon. This mood is matched by equally playful visual touches, such as the animated labels (straight out of Fight Club) that follow Harold around as he counts and measures the world around him.

At one point Dustin Hoffman’s garrulous professor (who steals all the best lines in the film) has Harold keeping tally on whether he is in a comedy or a tragedy, meticulously marking happy and sad events in his day. There’s a wonderful absurdity and a surprising poignancy to this kind of detail – a recognition of a shared desperation to make meaning out of our lives.

And it’s here that the heart of the film really lies. For all its literary trickery, Stranger than Fiction is really just a feel-good parable about living life to the full. At the beginning of the film both Harold and the author (played to frazzled, eccentric perfection by Emma Thompson) are trapped - Harold by his somnambulant existence and Karen by writer’s block. And, in a neat piece of writing, they end up setting each other free.

The film allows director Mark Forster (of Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland fame) further room to explore his obvious fascination with the intersection between imagination and reality. Together with a familiar crew of collaborators he has kept Stranger than Fiction snappily paced and easy on the eye. But it’s his skill with the actors that really makes the difference.

As Will Ferrell takes tentative steps into dramatic roles, he’s well served by a director like Forester. And, while he’s hardly brilliant, he does show some real promise. At the very least he keeps pace with the rest of the cast, which is no mean feat considering the calibre of actors like Thompson and Hoffman. Funnily enough he has the most trouble keeping up with the youngest cast member – the magnetic Maggie Gyllenhaal – who runs circles around his sometimes stiff delivery.

For all its charms, Stranger than Fiction is hardly perfect. It chooses to be cute and happy rather than profound and gloomy. And, while this makes it much easier to watch, you have to wonder what might have happened if the filmmakers had followed the plot to its logical, tragic conclusion.

In the end though, we can’t blame to film for wanting to please us. Whatever flaws it might have, we’re not going to see many better comedies this year. Don’t miss it.

- Alistair Fairweather
It may be a bit too clever for its own good at times, but Stranger than Fiction is a delightfully playful and unexpectedly cuddly little movie. Who knew a tax inspector could be so funny?

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