I often wish that more movies like Stranger Than Fiction were made. This is a clever, unique comedy that recognizes and achieves all of its potential. But then again, if more movies like this were made, they’d cease to be clever and unique, wouldn’t they? It is a conundrum, I guess. Since 2006 hasn’t seen another film like this, let’s just continue to honor it as The Most Original Comedy of the Year.
In Fiction, Will Ferrell, giving a straight performance with no clowning, plays Harold Crick, a tax man who lives a very calculated life (to the point where he counts his brush strokes). One day, he starts hearing a voice inside his head. Someone is narrating his life- that someone is Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), an acclaimed author who is suffering from a ten-year long string of writer’s block. The woman is a third-person omniscient narrator, so she knows everything about Harold, even about the crush he develops for baker Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal). It’s a strange but harmless nuisance…but little does he know that he’s going to die!
There is a secondary plot that follows Karen as she tries to bring Harold to the pages, all the while being pestered by her publisher Penny Escher (Queen Latifah). A person who never thinks twice about killing off a fictional character, she cannot seem to find the perfect death for her newest hero.
When it comes to a high-concept film like this, the real star is the writer. Zach Helm has written a script that is smart, but never beyond comprehension. There is never a moment when someone needs to go off on a monologue to keep the audience caught up. The film is rich with subtleties (for example, all of the characters are named after mathematicians and philosophers, except for Escher, who’s named after a painter). A film student would find Fiction a joy to take apart and analyze, but such a task is not necessary to enjoy it. It is refreshing to see that, in a world where most intellectual films speak high and with big words, there is a film that succeeds in keeping it simple.
The performances are strong all around. As mentioned before, a different Will Ferrell is seen here. Harold is a real person, not a character like Ron Burgundy of Anchorman. He shows a lot of range here, capable of playing a quiet, unhappy man without walking around with a big frown on his face. Maggie Gyllenhaal relishes playing the anarchist Ana. At first, she’s very bitter, but then you can tell that she’s coyly opening up to Harold. Emma Thompson is great as the troubled writer fascinated by death. There is also strong supporting work by Queen Latifah and Dustin Hoffman (as literature professor Jules Hilbert, who is given the strange task of dealing with Crick).
Much like Michael Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, Stranger Than Fiction seems like a film that seems too “arty” for the mainstream movie-goer. However, despite its playing bend on reality and slightly cynical study of literature, it is a film that is easy on the mind. Writer Zach Helm and director Marc Forster are not trying to force brilliant ideas onto the audience. Their goal is to make an excellent comedy-drama. Which they did.