STRANGER THAN FICTION (Review)
Having missed Marc Forster’s Monster’s Ball, I’ve since kept my eye on his emerging body of work, liking Finding Neverland well enough, though feeling it was a tad too much the inspiring Oscar biopic, while Stay was one of the most visually arresting films of 2005, but did have a significantly compromised script.
I’ve been waiting for Forster to find just the right screenplay to finally give us that first great film that I feel lies within him.
That screenplay is Zach Helm‘s Stranger Than Fiction.
Harold Crick (played by a marvelously restrained Will Ferrell) is an IRS agent whose life is circumscribed by numbers and routine, who suddenly begins to hear a voice that seems to be narrating his life.
Karen Eiffel (the sublime Emma Thompson) is a depressive writer whose next great book, Death and Taxes, is about a decade late. Her publisher has even sent her an assistant, Penny Escher (Queen Latifah), to help finally get the book in.
Karen’s problem: she can’t quite figure out how to kill her main character, Harold Crick.
Stranger Than Fiction is a funny and surprisingly moving examination of life and how we live it, grounded by excellent performances, not just from Ferrell and Thompson, but also from Dustin Hoffman (as Professor Jules Hilbert, a literature professor who Crick approaches for help) and Maggie Gyllenhaal (as Ana Pascal, a baker whom Crick must audit).
Forster casts this film brilliantly, assembling performers who are skilled in both drama and comedy, who are adept in finding poignant honesty even in the lighter, more comedic moments of the story.
And though Thompson is a casting coup (her voice alone is worth the price of admission), the revelation here is far and away Ferrell. Few comedians have the right stuff to pull off drama, and I’d never have guessed Ferrell capable, but here he is, the Everyman thrust into a situation out of the Twilight Zone, and managing to sell the notion well enough to move and elicit tears.
You may be aware of the possibility that Harold is a fictional character, that he may not even be real, but still, you feel for him and his plight. And of course, the post-modern trick here is, Harold is indeed a fiction. Ferrell is playing a fictional character who may actually be a fictional character. Does he not then become truth?
But all the post-modern bits in Stranger Than Fiction aren’t there for the sake of being there, they’re there in service to the narrative, to (among other things) highlight our own questions regarding our lives: who are we, why are we here, are we living a comedy, or a tragedy?
Through Prof. Hilbert, Helm’s script references literary trappings and conventions, using them as a tool to help us understand our lives, an idea which at first may seem dubious, but makes a whole lot of sense, really.
That is, after all, what the best fiction (whether on the page or on the screen) is there for: to illuminate. To make us go, “Oh, yeah. I see that. I get it.”
His script is also able to find the humanity at the core of the humdrum Harold, and give us a character we can identify with and root for. Forster then gets us in Harold’s corner from the word “Go.”
With that visual flair he displayed so masterfully in Stay, Forster sets up a regular day in Harold’s life with onscreen graphics reminiscent of some sections of David Fincher’s Fight Club. We are there, immersed in Harold’s world, as he counts the number of times he brushes each tooth, or the number of steps he takes to get to the bus stop. He even has what seems to be a sentient watch. (A little bit of apparent whimsy that takes on an ultimate relevance in the final act.)
This isolation and melancholy made bearable by the redundancy of routine resonates because we’ve all been there at one point or another in our lives. Harold is there as a stand-in for each and every one of us who may have thought we were living, but instead were merely coasting, skimming the surface of the potentially rich and singular experience that is our life.
And when Harold first hears the voice apparently narrating his life, it’s funny, yes, but we see the panic there as well, as Harold’s world begins to unravel at its meticulously ordered seams. Like I said, Ferrell sells the Twilight Zone idea.
If Helm’s script finds Harold’s humanity, Ferrell puts it on proud display, reinforcing the idea of the power of fiction, and how that reflects upon our life, how a “mere” story can shape and influence, and hopefully leave us a better person than we were when we started it.
Stranger Than Fiction takes the conceit of films like Life Or Something Like It and Latifah’s own Last Holiday, gives it a postmodern spin, and safely gets it light years away from Movie of the Week territory, proving that we can absorb important life lessons without having to be subjected to cheesy schmaltz out of the Hallmark School of Filmmaking.
It also ultimately reminds us of the grace and beauty of the seemingly insignificant, of the tiny, everyday miracles, and in this day and age which runs on the delusion of “Bigger is better,” that’s always a good thing.