Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 11/09/06 21:25:53

"Simply wonderful all over."
5 stars (Awesome)

We have heard Harold Crick’s story before. He is a sad man, a lonely man, a man whose life is filled with work and numbers and nothing else. And then he meets a woman so not like him at all, so free and adventurous and awake in this world, and he falls madly in love, breaking away from the loneliness and rigidity of his life, becoming someone new. Harold is, in a word, a cliché.

Ah, but what if Harold were to suddenly discover that he was indeed a cliché? What if one day, he was to suddenly be able to hear the voice of the woman who was, at that very moment, writing his story?

Such is the premise of “Stranger Than Fiction,” a dramedy combining the best of the what-life’s-all-about genre, Charlie Kaufman-esque meta-scripting, and absurdist comic fantasy. It is also a true delight, the sort of movie that wraps you in all its wonders while contemplating the power of storytelling. This is a genuine marvel of a movie.

Playing Harold Crick is Will Ferrell, who has worked on drier, more serious fare before (“Melinda and Melinda, “Winter Passing”), but nothing like this. His change-of-pace turn in this film is a revelation on par with Jim Carrey in “The Truman Show.” Yes, we still get Ferrell’s broad, self-deprecating sense of humor, but it’s filtered though a genuinely moving story and a genuinely appealing character. Ferrell has made a career out of being laughed at; here, finally, we laugh with him.

The film opens quite mundanely, with Harold, a clerk for the IRS, going through his morning routine while a narrator (Emma Thompson) introduces us to him. Then Harold stops - he can hear her, too. The voice doesn’t stop, yet only he can hear it. And so it goes for a few days, confusing him, tormenting him, prodding him on as he begins his audit of rebellious baker Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal), talking him through his own newly aroused passions. Is Harold crazy, or does the narrator have some larger significance?

That’s when we meet the narrator. She is Karen Eiffel, a renowned author who is finally starting her first new book in years, a book (as we already know) about a lonely man named Harold Crick. She is far behind her deadline, so her publisher has sent an assistant (Queen Latifah) to bump her along. Karen’s problem? All of her main characters die in her novels, and she is stuck coming up with a proper death for Harold Crick. She has only written that he will die soon - a bit of text Harold has heard, much to his chagrin.

The final portion of the equation is Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), a literature professor who’s promised to help Harold figure out just what kind of story Harold is living. Hilbert eliminates some of the more fantastic possibilities (“I am relieved to know I am not a Golem,” Harold wearily announces), but what is left? A comedy? A tragedy? Surely meeting Ana is a major part of the tale. Will the romance end happily ever after, or is Harold doomed?

The key to all this is the way the film treats Harold and his predicament. Surprisingly, Harold is not here merely to be comically shouting at the voice he keeps hearing. Instead, he is to have a magnificent story unfold in front of himself. Remove the gimmick, and the story still works. This is because first-time screenwriter Zach Helm develops Harold’s story as if it really mattered. If we were to read the very novel Karen was writing, we’d fall in love with it, enjoying such a sweet tale of a quiet man and a possible romance. That is what Helm wishes to push through as the many layers of “Stranger Than Fiction” unfold.

Those levels never crush the underlying romance. Sure, the story folds over on itself and adds in a whole heap of quirkiness, yet through it all the script remains steadfastly character-centric. Consider the scene in which Ana makes cookies for Harold, who had dutifully put up with Ana’s anarchic behavior for days. Here is a tender moment between two people who may be unexpectedly falling in love. Beyond anything else the film presents to us, this scene works entirely because of its glorious simplicity.

And, of course, because of Ferrell, whose performance is sweet and lovable, producing nothing but smiles. As Harold breaks out of his shell, we root for him every inch of the way, and it’s all because of Ferrell, who finds laughs in the material but does not let this divert from keeping with the character. He finds the delicate in his Harold; just listen to him as he gently croons to Wreckless Eric’s punk tune “Whole Wide World.” The scene is a marvel.

Now consider Karen’s narration. The whole thing could have been brushed aside as little more than the starting point for the film’s central conceit, yet Helm shows serious interest in making it the top notch literature other characters say it is. The narration is nothing short of great writing, elegant prose that draws us in deep and fills us up. Hearing such words drip from the tongue of Emma Thompson, then, only makes it all the more splendid.

But what of Thompson’s own character? That, too, gets plenty of dramatic weight. Her chain-smoking, antisocial author is as every bit involving as Harold himself. Will she break through the writer’s block, or will she continue to melt down? And if she were to meet Harold, what then?

This last question shifts the film into an even more emotional direction, with Harold stuck between escaping his own death and embracing it. There are moments here of true perfection, such as the scene of Harold reading the story of his own life. If we were to read our own lives, would we not want someone with the grace of Karen Eiffel to pen it?

“Stranger Than Fiction” is directed by Marc Forster, who previously made the completely lousy “Monster’s Ball” and the impeccably decent “Finding Neverland,” among others. Here, thanks to an outstanding screenplay and some powerhouse performances, he delivers a work far and above anything he’s made before. The film is charming and delightful and at times very, very funny, and it is also heartbreaking and overwhelming and at times very, very sad. This is great storytelling, which is appropriate, as it is a celebration of great storytelling. Harold Crick is a familiar character, but here, he unexpectedly becomes a great character as well. This is one of the year’s very best movies.

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