IRS Agent Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) lives by a strict, rigid schedule revolving around his wristwatch. On the same day that he’s assigned to audit an intentionally tax-delinquent baker, Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), he starts hearing the voice of a woman who is omnisciently narrating his life. At first, he doesn’t know what to make of it all, but his attention is on full alert, after he hears, “little did he know that this simple, seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death”.
Desperate for any help he can receive, but unable to communicate with this narrator, Harold meets with literature professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) who may be able to pinpoint the type of story he’s a part of in order to possibly avoid whatever death he might face. Eventually, he discovers that his life story is unwittingly being written out by Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), an author who specializes in tragedies.
Written by Zach Helm and directed by the underrated Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland, Stay, The Kite Runner), Stranger than Fiction is similar to The Truman Show (one of Jim Carrey’s best performances) in that it also deals deals with a sad, humdrum character who’s thrust into an extraordinary situation that helps shake up his mundane, vanilla life. While witty and imaginative, with some quirky touches thrown in by Forster to visualize Harold’s compulsive routines, the thought-provoking questions raised give it its depth. I mean, imagine if you realized your life was being narrated by someone else out there in the world. Would you be willing to die if it meant contributing to a literary work of art?
“You have to die… It’s her masterpiece. It’s possibly the most important novel in her already stunning career, and it’s absolutely no good unless you die at the end.”, says Prof. Hilbert remorsefully to Harold.
On the other side of the coin, could you knowingly bring yourself to kill an innocent man if it meant reviving your career with the greatest work you’ve ever done?
This is a tricky film to not only write, but also direct ’cause there’s a variety of elements at play here with its humor, romance, fantasy and heavy moral dilemmas. Lesser hands could’ve had these multiple tones spinning out of control all throughout this film. The fanciful nature could’ve been taken too far, the heavier themes could’ve turned things melodramatic or gone to darker places than needed, and the humor could’ve been played up to fit Will Ferrell’s brash comedy comfort zone. In any of those cases, we wouldn’t have a film as wonderful as the one we have here, but Forster has shown himself to be quite a strong and versatile filmmaker, and he guides this story beautifully.
I’m not exactly a Will Ferrell fan, and save a few exceptions (Old School, Anchorman and the predictable yet charming Elf), I’ve found most of his films irritating (mainly, his insert self into “this particular sport” phase), and his brand of humor overrated. All that said, he’s fantastic here. This isn’t his first stab at dramatic roles. He was solid in Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda and not so good in Winter Passing. However, this is the first film outside of Ferrell’s norm where he hits it out of the park. Of course, Forster and Helm could’ve catered to Ferrell’s style of comedy as a safety net for him, but they wisely challenge him in keeping his performance subdued. The result is a refreshingly restrained performance that’s the best work Ferrell’s done, even to this day. Every now and then, his penchant for self-deprecating humor comes forth, but it’s sans the over-the-top ranting and raving, and is filtered through a likeable character that contains more heart and humanity than any other character Ferrell’s played before in his career.
That we come to like Harold Crick and root for him, not just to survive but to win over Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Ana, is what keeps the main narrative device from feeling like a cheap gimmick. Remove the device from the film and you still have the likeable characters and their story. That’s not to say the device doesn’t make things more interesting, but without a central character worth caring for, it’s nowhere as effective.
If only Ferrell could occasionally take a detour from the tired schtick and push himself more like he does here.
Although Ferrell holds his own so well here, it doesn’t hurt to back him up with a strong supporting cast that inhabit characters that are just as well-written. Maggie Gyllenhaal is smart, sassy and sweet as the audited free-spirited baker, and the relationship that gradually grows between her and Ferrell never once feels forced. Giving his best performance since 1997’s Wag the Dog, Dustin Hoffman provides some of the film’s most engaging moments as the literature professor who’s trying to narrow down exactly what type of story Harold’s in. Like her co-star, fellow two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson also turns in the best work she’s done in years as the reclusive author whose frustrations with writer’s block have her on the verge of a meltdown.
If there’s any downside, it’s Queen Latifah. That’s not a knock on her talent, ’cause she’s capable of much better work than what the long list of crappy films throughout her career might otherwise say. She’s just stuck playing an uninteresting character, one that, to be honest, isn’t even necessary.
Clever, funny and thoughtful throughout, Stranger than Fiction is another strongly directed effort from Marc Forster, who ably balances the film’s playful and imaginative humor with its deeper themes of fate and destiny. Gyllenhaal, Hoffman and Thompson all turn in the type of dependable supporting work we expect from them, but it’s Will Ferrell who shines the most in a revelatory performance that, like what Jim Carrey did nearly a decade before in The Truman Show, proves he has more range as an actor than the typical broad comedies he appears in allows him to reveal.