Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

14 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Stranger Than Fiction” is a delightful, thought-provoking film with an ingenious premise. What if you and your life were subjects of a novel being written as you live your life? What if you heard the writer talking in your head, as a narrator of your life? And what if the writer foretold that a harmless act will lead to your imminent death? That’s the idea for “Stranger Than Fiction.” It’s executed remarkably well, hardly ever stepping wrong. It’s a comedy-drama, a fantasy, and romance all in one, while featuring great work from the cast and great moments of eccentric humor, happy-or-sad truth, and genuine tenderness.

Before I write the review, I want to tell a little story. I have to be honest. I didn’t like this movie when I first saw it. I saw it on the big screen in early December 2006 (it was released in mid-November), when I was fourteen years old. That night, I was going to see “Unaccompanied Minors” with my family. For some reason I can’t quite recall, I saw “Stranger Than Fiction” by myself. So there I was, one of only two people in the theater, and “Stranger Than Fiction” became a much more poignant movie than I was expecting…which disappointed me. I was expecting a broad comedy, especially since Will Ferrell was the star, and was looking forward to seeing one. This wasn’t it. Then, that night, I saw “Unaccompanied Minors,” marketed as a gentle family comedy, and it actually met my expectations.

If you don’t know what “Unaccompanied Minors” is…well, you’re not missing that much. As time went by, that film just wore out on me. But soon enough, I started to recall the other movie I saw that day, and was really starting to think about it. So I rented “Stranger Than Fiction” on DVD and noticed something in it that I never would have seen in my ignorant early-teenage state. It affected me so much that it totally changed my entire view of it. I realize it did leave an impact on me, and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to see it again.

Anyway, that’s the kind of film “Stranger Than Fiction” is—one that takes you totally by surprise. One of the main surprises is that, yes, Will Ferrell is the star of this complex, touching film. Ferrell has been known for his broad comedic work, whether on “SNL” or movies like “Elf” or “Anchorman.” Although he has done dramatic work a couple times before, none of it was really that memorable. His performance in “Stranger Than Fiction,” however, puts him up there with comedic actors that show that they are capable of equaling their skills to their dramatic capabilities.

Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an IRS auditor whose life is based around numbers—calculating large sums in his head and counting his every move each day. While this is effective in keeping in time with his everyday routines and his work, this doesn’t work well with human interaction. He lives alone, keeps to himself, and has no real friends. Then, something strange happens—Harold starts to hear a woman’s voice, talking about him “accurately and with a better vocabulary.”

Harold becomes convinced he’s hearing the narrating voice of his own narrative being written. He goes to see a shrink (Linda Hunt), who tells him that these symptoms resemble schizophrenia. She then recommends that he visits a literary professor (Dustin Hoffman), who doesn’t believe him at first, but ends up giving him some helpful advice in finding out if his story is a comedy or a tragedy. And Harold must find out soon, because the narrator has already spoken of a foreshadowing to his “imminent death.”

Meanwhile, we do see the author herself—an odd reclusive woman named Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) who is suffering from writer’s block. Her trademark in her novels is that her protagonists are dead by the time the story is finished—she can’t decide how to kill Harold Crick. With the aid of her new assistant (Queen Latifah), she attempts to come up with something tragic and fitting, not knowing that Harold is a living person whose life is in her control.

While this is going on, Harold finds he does have something to live for. That would be Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a baker whom he has to audit. At first, she hates him and does everything she can to make his job miserable. Harold, however, can’t stop thinking about her and is even nervous around her. But eventually, Ana does take pity on Harold and even bakes him cookies. This is the start of a nice relationship between the two, meaning that it’s very important that Harold lives longer than Kay intends him to. Harold has to find her and practically beg for her not to kill him.

Director Marc Forster and writer Zach Helm show a great deal of fondness for these characters and it constantly shows. We like them just as much as they do. These are real, appealing people; not merely caricatures that they could have become. I enjoy spending time with them, and credit for that must also go to the actors. Ferrell is just brilliant. He’s likable, endearing, tragic, and funny when he needs to be. He creates a three-dimensional character in Harold Crick and we don’t want him to die, even if it means that Kay will have her masterpiece if he does. Emma Thompson, as Kay Eiffel, is wonderful—playing her role as an intelligent, but slightly odd, artist obsessed with creating the perfect novel. Maggie Gyllenhaal is delightful as Ana, and displays great, convincing chemistry with Ferrell—they’re great together. Dustin Hoffman plays it straight with the role of the literary professor and he’s allthemore effective because of it.

The story is incredible on paper and comes through on screen with great execution. It just gets better as it goes along, making you feel for these people and the outcome of every situation. And it’s a lot of fun to follow along with the creativity of the tale as it continues—touches such as Harold quietly checking off every mark of a “comedy” or a “tragedy” are just fantastic.

The final half is just perfect. While many films deteriorate and run out of energy before the last reel, “Stranger Than Fiction” just delivers the right amount of payoffs and displays the exact right tone of emotions. It deals with mortality in the sensitive ways you can think of, given the situation. It also asks the questions of whether or not Kay has the right to kill off her main character to have her “masterpiece.” If he dies, the story will come full-circle and there will have been a well-crafted piece of work. The solution fits the film perfectly.

I was expecting a comedy out of “Stranger Than Fiction.” What I got instead was something more wonderful, sweet, and impactful. It’s a great film; one that made me laugh, made me cry, and made me smile. So as you can tell, it did leave an impact on me when I was 14. I just didn’t know it yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: