Stranger Than Fiction

| November 12, 2006

To tell you the truth, I’ve struggled for days with how to best start this review. The only thing I can think of right now is how I sat in my car after seeing this film and paused before turning the engine over, letting the seconds tick by with the late fall rain crashing down on the windshield. Not some slick introduction, but simply how I was still with the film in that car, even though it had ended fifteen minutes earlier and how I’m still in that movie theater as I write this review.
It isn’t that Stranger Than Fiction is some staggering Bergmanesque masterpiece on the human condition. No, Stranger Than Fiction, in a season of serious movies, is really just a story well told. But what a wonderful story it is. Full of deft, but light ruminations on the nuances of life and the things most of us take for granted every day. It’s a film that’s crackles with an understated populist intelligence. It’s magic realism spun with loopy sincerity and a wristwatch.
Will Ferrell is Harold Crick, an IRS Auditor, whose life is bound by routine and numbers – literally and figuratively. He is a slave to time, precision and his wristwatch – who’s sentient and dictates more of Harold’s life than Harold will ever realize. This slavery to time and precision is what makes Harold good at what he does. It’s what defines him as a person, yet, leaves no room for anything else. In other words, it’s a lonely existence filled only with things like the exact number of steps to the bus and the exact number of minutes tying his tie in the morning .
When Harold hears a droll woman’s voice with a British accent narrating his actions one day, that meticulous life begins to unravel. He doesn’t know it yet, but the voice is that of author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), who’s suffering from a massive bout of writer’s block. Harold is a character in her latest novel. When he hears the voice, he also hears that he’s about to die. This sets Harold on an existential journey to find her before she kills him off that changes him, and the people he touches along the way, forever.
Let’s stop the review here for a moment, okay? All arguments aside, logic isn’t the point of this premise. Sure, there are a few holes in the actual metaphysics of the story. But, I urge you, when you see this movie (and you should, right away) to set cynicism and that need to comprehend aside and let the magic of the story’s premise work for you. Okay?
Will Ferrell’s Harold Crick is poignant and charming. Ferrell’s performance is sure to attract buzz during the awards season. He achieves a certain understated grace totally unexpected in light of his past work. Harold Crick is no Ricky Bobby, that’s for sure. Ferrell displays perfect restraint and genuine emotional range, dramatic skills that most great cinematic clowns long to achieve in their work, but rarely do. I think it’s a testament to his performance that this movie isn’t being hyped as an overblown star vehicle, but rather as a film, first and foremost, with a unique story to tell.
The co-conspirators, with Ferrell, behind Stranger than Fiction, are first time screenwriter Zach Helm and the director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland). Helm is currently the Hot Screenwriter of the Moment in Hollywood thanks to this script and it’s obvious why. The story doesn’t have any missed notes. It uses all that it sets forth without overbalancing the whole – a rare accomplishment in the current studio system. Forster’s direction, though, is really the unsung hero of the film. The movie snaps with the confidence of his better work. He keeps the film light and buoyant, with just the right underpinning of dramatic weight in the key moments. It’s this touch that remains with you afterwards. You’re left thinking to yourself (wonderfully so), “How can such an obvious fantasy remain so emotionally realistic?”
Last, but surely not least, are the supporting players. Maggie Gyllenhal, as Ana, the anarchist baker who doesn’t pay her taxes and finds herself audited by Crick. Dustin Hoffman as a professor and literary theorist who helps Harold find the voice in his head and Emma Thompson as Kay Eiffel, the author. Each delivers a stellar performance worthy of recognition and praise. No one’s scene stealing here. They all blend richly into the narrative whole. Though Maggie Gyllenhal is especially luminous. Her character is a revelation. She provides the emotional heart of the film, helping Harold break free from his life of precision while he tries to determine his fate before it befalls him.
Stranger Than Fiction is that most rare of studio films. It’s sweet and thought – provoking. It’s smart without making you feel dumb. It surprises you when you least expect it and leaves you feeling a little more connected to the smaller moments in life you sometimes forget about. It’s the kind of movie that’ll live with you long after you leave the theater. I’m smiling, still thinking about it, as I write this last line.

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