Stranger Than Fiction Review
What if you discovered you were a character in a novel? The lead character? That your fate was in the hands of the book's author and that the story was headed for a tragic ending? This is the situation in which Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) finds himself in Stranger Than Fiction.
It all begins one morning when Harold is shaving and he hears a woman's voice apparently narrating what he's doing. The voice follows him to the bus stop and to his office, where he works as a government tax auditor. The voice continues describing everything Harold does and commenting on the drudgery of his daily life. Harold refuses to believe he's going mad. He figures out that the voice is reading from a novel and so he goes to see Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), a professor of literature, to ask his advice.
Despite his scepticism, Professor Hilbert agrees to help Harold work out what sort of story he's in and who might be the author. He decides the key plotline is Harold's relationship with Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the feisty, young owner of a bakery he's currently auditing. Ana, who's something of a bohemian, is refusing point blank to pay the proportion of her taxes which go to causes she's against, such as funding wars and bailing out corporations. Harold's assignment was to get the money or prosecute her. Instead, he's fallen for her.
Little does Harold know (this lovely phrase gets a scene to itself), the author whose voice he's hearing belongs to Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson). She's an intensely neurotic Englishwoman who received some acclaim for her earlier books but hasn't finished writing anything in ten years. Her publishers have sent her an assistant (Queen Latifah) to help her with her latest case of writers' block. The problem she's having is devising a satisfactory way of killing the hero of her new book, a character named Harold Crick.
First off, let me make this perfectly clear: Talladega Nights this is not. Stranger Than Fiction bears about as much resemblance to your typical Will Ferrell comedy as Punch Drunk Love does to your typical Adam Sandler movie. This is a witty, adult comedy which has much more in common with independent films like Little Miss Sunshine and Garden State, with some of Woody Allen's lighter movies and, especially, with the work of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman: Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind.
Like Kaufman's scripts, Stranger Than Fiction begins with a fantastic, sci-fi premise and treats it realistically, with wry, everyday logic. How would a real person with real quirks and real problems react to the knowledge that their life was the plot of a novel and their destiny was being controlled by an unseen author? Would he just accept it the way, in Click, Adam Sandler just accepts the fact that his remote control can alter the world around him? Probably not. Probably he'd react much like Harold Crick, who first screams at the voice to shut up and leave him alone and then searches desperately for someone to help him understand his predicament.
While it's good this isn't a lazy, formula comedy, there's another trap this sort of material can fall into - cleverness for its own sake, the sort of smarmy showing off practised by self-conscious "indie movies" like the over-rated I Heart Huckabees. Stranger Than Fiction avoids that pitfall because it has so much warmth to it. The film's as good-natured as it is smart and it pulls you in surprisingly deep. By the ending, I was as involved with this movie as I've been with any this year other than United 93.
The people in Stranger Than Fiction are fun to watch and easy to like. Harold Crick, despite all his eccentricities, is one of the most sympathetic movie characters of recent years. This is thanks in no small part to Will Ferrell, who is absolutely wonderful in his first semi-dramatic role. So's Maggie Gyllenhaal, playing a hippie chick who could melt Donald Rumsfeld's heart. Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah and Emma Thompson (where has she been?) provide excellent support.
The director is Marc Forster, who made the impressive Monsters Ball and then followed it with the over-sentimental Finding Neverland and the shallow Jacob's Ladder clone, Stay. Stranger Than Fiction finds him back at the top of his game, with material worthy of his talents. It also proves he has a considerable gift for directing comedy as well as drama.
The movie's most valuable player however is first time screenwriter Zach Helm, who is definitely a name to watch. He's making his directing debut next year with Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, which stars Dustin Hoffman and Natalie Portman. That's gone right to the top of the list of films I'm looking forward to in 2007.