Is Harold Crick living in a comedy, or a tragedy? That's the question Harold himself tries to answer in Stranger Than Fiction, a story about a man who hears a voice narrating his everyday activities and making ominous predictions about his future, as though he were a character in a novel and the voice were its author.
It is also the question that many moviegoers may ask when they sit down to watch Stranger Than Fiction. The film stars Will Ferrell, the Saturday Night Live alumnus who is best known for playing outrageously cartoonish characters like Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby—but it never feels like a Will Ferrell comedy. True, it is kind of quirky, but it is also rather sad and melancholic. Like Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love, Ferrell is playing a character who resembles some of his other roles, but he reins in any urge he might have had to ham things up; instead, he puts his skills to the service of an ambitious story told by a filmmaker who truly knows his craft.
So, to the story. Harold Crick is an IRS agent whose life is little more than a string of dull, dreary, methodical routines. Every morning he brushes his teeth a certain number of times, and he walks a certain number of steps across the street to catch his bus—and the film annotates his activities with pop-up diagrams that track his every move. Harold's activities are described to us by a female voice-over narrator—and then, one morning, Harold hears the voice for himself. At first this is merely annoying, and it drives Harold nuts—but then the woman's voice makes a cryptic reference to Harold's imminent death, and Harold begins to fear for his life.
The voice belongs to Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a novelist who has a bad case of writer's block; the problem is so bad, in fact, that the publisher has sent her an assistant named Penny Escher (Queen Latifah) to goad her into finishing her latest book. We learn that Kay has a reputation for killing off her main characters, and the reason her current novel is stuck in limbo is because she can't figure out how to bump off the main character—who just happens to be Harold Crick.
Movies about fictional artists often falter when they portray the work produced by those artists, especially when the films go out of their way to try to persuade us that the artists in question are really brilliant; once we see or hear the work of art for ourselves, we may not be so convinced. To some degree, Stranger Than Fiction falls into this trap, because we hear enough of Kay's narration to get the impression that it isn't particularly special. For one thing, there isn't enough material there for an entire novel; it barely qualifies as a short story. And Harold is such a lifeless robot, at first, that he only really becomes interesting when he fights against her words.
For assistance, Harold turns to a literary prof named Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), who creates a test to narrow down the possible range of genres to which Harold's life story might belong. Harold also happens to be auditing—and falling in love with—an idealistic baker named Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), so he takes notes every time they meet, tallying the moments between them that seem to point towards a happy ending and those which seem to point towards something more tragic. Of course, since he works for the IRS, and she withheld a portion of her taxes to protest government policies, the relationship might seem doomed; then again, romantic comedies often start with couples hating each other's guts, so who knows?
The movie's central gimmick is so full of potential holes, and the film spends so little time explaining it, that it's probably best not to think about it too much. (What does Harold hear when Kay writes a sentence that covers an hour's, day's, or even week's worth of his life? What does he hear when she writes an entire paragraph or two to describe something that took him only a few seconds to do? Why do none of the other characters in Kay's book hear her voice? Why does Kay seem oblivious to the fact that Harold's actions are increasingly motivated by the fact that he can hear her? What happens when she revises what she has written? That sort of thing.)
Better, instead, to savor the striking visuals and the finely tuned performances (a scene in which Ana serves Harold some cookies late at night is surprisingly poignant, and a chance encounter on an extended bus brings some low-key absurdism to their unlikely courtship), and to ponder the larger philosophical questions raised by the film. Do we have any control over our lives? If our lives do have an author—God, the Fates, whatever one believes—is this author necessarily on our side? How important is it that our deaths be "meaningful"—or, for that matter, that our lives be "meaningful"? Does "meaning" come from within us, or from somewhere outside of us?
The characters' very surnames hint at some of these larger questions. Crick may be named after the scientist Francis Crick, an atheist who co-discovered the molecular structure of DNA and, later in his career, turned his attention to the idea that consciousness and what we normally think of as spiritual experiences are just the byproduct of our biology. Eiffel, the architect of Harold's life story, may be named after the architect who designed both the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty. Pascal brings to mind the philosopher who gave us the idea that it is safer to gamble that God exists than to gamble that he doesn't. Escher recalls the artist who depicted topsy-turvy, logic-defying worlds in which staircases go up, down, and sideways, all at the same time. And while I didn't recognize the name Hilbert, a quick scan of Wikipedia indicates that David Hilbert was a mathematician whose ideas influenced the study of quantum mechanics, which may be of some significance here.
Stranger Than Fiction, written by newcomer Zach Helm, is the third feature film to be directed by Marc Forster since Monster's Ball, and if it is not as accessible as Finding Neverland (which also explored the relationship between reality and fiction, albeit in a very different way), it is at least more engaging than last year's Stay, which was the sort of bad movie that only a very clever person can make. Stranger Than Fiction is not the most satisfying of films, and it may not be as profound as it wants to be, but there are moments here that make it well worth a look.Discussion starters
- Do we have any control over our lives? What influence do outside forces have on us? How can we tell if they are good or bad, for us or against us
- What does this movie say about death? Note the footage of animal predators on Harold's TV, and the comments made by Hilbert. Can death ever be meaningful
- Where is "meaning" found? In ourselves? In something outside of us (other people, God, etc.)? Is it entirely one or the other, or can we negotiate our meaning with these outside sources? Could Harold have done something different at the end of his story, or did he need to do what Kay had written for him to do
- Does Harold learn by studying (that is, auditing) Ana? Does Kay learn by studying (that is, writing about) Harold? How are their situations similar, or different?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Stranger Than Fiction is rated PG-13 for some disturbing images (including documentary footage of animal deaths), sexuality (implied but not shown), brief language (roughly half-a-dozen instances of divine names being taken in vain, a four-letter word or two) and nudity (men's rear ends in a swimming-pool shower).
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Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 11/16/06
Harold Crick has a voice in his head, narrating everything he does. That's reason for concern.
But when the voice starts declaring that Howard is about to suffer a sudden demise, well, that's reason for panic.
Stranger Than Fiction stars Will Ferrell, but it is not a typical Will Ferrell movie. It's a thoughtful, amusing, poignant comedy about the meaning of life. As Harold hunts down the novelist who is crafting his story, he is developing a desire to live.
And while the movie might have settled for a "seize the day, savor the moment" conclusion, the movie is earning raves from Christian film critics for its willingness to go even farther and become a story about selflessness.
What is more, it features memorable supporting performances by Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, and Maggie Gyllenhaal; a romance that has moments of real class (well, for a few minutes, at least); and surprising, inventive special effects, the most remarkable of which is a restrained performance from Ferrell that will give his naysayers second thoughts.
In other words, Marc Forster, the versatile, imaginative director who brought us Finding Neverland, has crafted another winner.
Greg Wright (Past the Popcorn) says, "Zach Helm's script is pure delight. Not only does it capture the nuances of the creative process as well as Adaptation or Barton Fink (and delight in wry in-jokes about the history of theoretical mathematics), it is a serious and entertaining examination of the question, 'What would you do if you knew for sure that you were going to die?'"
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says the screenplay "has a very Charlie Kaufmanesque feel. … By turns sentimental, funny and, in the end, modestly profound … Marc Forster's existential farce touches on issues of fate and free will (you could even call it a Calvinistic comedy) and imparts a wonderful message that the little moments—the smiles, hugs and small acts of kindness—we often relegate to footnote status in the narrative of our daily living are what give life its meaning."
Christopher Lyon and Steven Isaac (Plugged In) say it's "generally pleasant to watch. … [The film] leaves viewers with one amazingly straightforward homily beyond that of wake up and live well. It is that while a good deed done unwittingly is still a good deed, one done with full knowledge of the sacrifice required is the rarest of spiritual services."
Christa Banister (Crosswalk) says, "Stranger Than Fiction is an unconventional but well-crafted fable that will keep you intrigued (and in suspense) until the very end."
Most mainstream critics find it a fun bit of fiction.
from Film Forum, 11/30/06
Santosh Ninan (Relevant) "Ferrell explores new acting ground in this film. … Stranger Than Fiction is a more dramatic piece with the aid of some comedic elements. Ferrell fans are in for a surprise; he is understated and effective in this role.