© 2006 Ray Wong
The ideas around Stranger Than Fiction are so cliched and commonplace among writers that they actually become intriguing. I mean, every fiction writer has writer's block, and they all have felt that godlike power and how real their characters are. So what if their characters are real, that they can actually manipulate their lives, or terminate them?
Harold Crick (Ferrell) is an IRS agent who lives his life literally by the numbers. He counts his brushstrokes in the morning and times his arrival to the bus stop at exactly the same moment the bus arrives. He eats alone and has no friends. He's rather content with his life until one day he hears a female voice saying, "Harold Crick just counted his brushstrokes." At first he thinks he's going through some kind of psychological breakdown, but soon discovers that the voice is actually narrating his life, accurately. It's simply a minor annoyance, until one day the voice says, "Little did he know, a chain of events have been set in motion to lead to his imminent death." He asks Jules Hilbert (Hoffman), a literary scholar, to help him find the voice and stop her from killing him. Jules suggests Harold to face the inevitable and start living his life.
It turns out the voice belongs to best-selling novelist Kay Eiffel (Thompson), who is suffering from a major writer's block: She doesn't know how to kill her character, who happens to be Harold. Impatient with her progress, her publisher sends her an assistant, Penny (Latifah), to help her find a way to kill off Harold Crick. Meanwhile, Harold is falling for Anna, a feisty baker whose tax returns he is auditing. In a race against time, Harold must learn to unlearn everything and make every day count until he can find the voice.
Ferrell (Talladega Nights) is best-known for this juvenile shticks. But if Elf was any indication, Ferrell is best when he lets his quiet, child-like quality carry the humor. Such is the case in Stranger Than Fiction. Ferrell is able to underplay his character with innocence and a subtle yet inherently funny undercurrent of befuddlement and resolve. As the blocked novelist, Thompson (Nanny McPhee) literally lets her hair down and is delightfully neurotic and manic-depressive. Ferrell and Thompson only share a brief scene together, but their chemistry as well as characterization of their respective characters play off each other very well.
The supporting cast is outstanding. Gyllenhaal (World Trade Center) is fantastic as Harold's unlikely object of affection. She could easily exaggerate her performance as a larger-than-life character opposite Ferrell's Harold Crick, but she chooses to play off her nuances and barb-coated sweetness. Hoffman (Meet the Fockers) is perfect as the indifferent professor who thinks life is either a tragedy or comedy depending on our outlooks. Latifah (Last Holiday) has a minor role as the assistant but she grounds Thompson's character.
Writer Helm (Other People's Business) has created an interesting high concept, and he executes it with precise Charlie Kaufman-eques strange humor. The script is teeming with cliches, especially when it comes to the characters of author (Kay) and character (Harold). But these cliches work in the framework because in a way, the film is a satire, a cautionary fairytale about art vs. life. It poses an interesting question: If you must choose between art and life, which would you choose? Helm's dialogue and narrative are sharp, witty, and observant, and his characters are interesting. He employs all the writerly cliches in the structure of the screenplay as well: dramatic irony, foreshadowing, mirroring, etc., giving every writer in the audience a chance to giggle at the inside jokes. Even the title is a cliche -- and it's perfect.
Director Forster (Finding Neverland) has assembled a perfect cast for this production. Everyone plays their roles and plays off each other wonderfully. Forster also engages us with a brisk pace and minimalist yet visually arresting production. Ferrell's subdued performance compliments Thompson's morose narration perfectly to achieve a certain comic revelation. There is not a dull moment in the film. It keeps us guessing until the end. Okay, maybe not whether Harold is going to live or die, but rather, how exactly Kay Eiffel is going to kill Harold Crick. The question looms over us from the very first reel and it's a smart move. Perhaps this fantasy won't change the world, but it certainly is thought-provoking in an entertaining way. And if it does manage to change the world, even for a bit, that won't be exactly stranger than fiction.
Stars: Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Queen Latifah
Director: Marc Forster
Writer: Zach Helm
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some disturbing images, sexuality, brief language and nudity
Running Time: 113 minutes
Script – 8
Performance – 9
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 7
Production – 7
Total – 7.9 out of 10