Stranger Than Fiction is a great concept coupled with poor execution. The idea behind the film is innovative and interesting, a reality bending universe that evokes strands of The Truman Show, Adaptation, and Being John Malkovich. Unfortunately it gets lost trying to figure out what the point is (and how exactly to get there). When the credits come up there is no culmination, no payoff, and it feels like a waste of time. On the plus side, and speaking of credits, Stranger than Fiction doesn’t have opening ones. This is delightful!! I can’t stress enough how many movies could jump a full half letter grade with me if only they’d get straight to the action.
Stranger Than Fiction starts very strong with Will Ferrell and Emma Thompson (voice-over) hitting on all cylinders. Ferrell’s character of Harold Crick is a man defined by numbers, the number of brushstrokes while brushing his teeth, the amount of steps needed to walk to the bus, the exact timing of a coffee break from his work for the I.R.S. Thompson is a writer whom Harold begins hearing narrate his life. If you’ve seen the trailer you’re in on the joke, if you haven’t just note the fact that Crick can hear the author, and that’s obviously to his great distress. Ferrell tries to interact with the voice but she can’t hear him. Thompson continues plugging away at her novel; she’s unaware that she’s taken over Harold’s life.
Let’s get right to the problems in defining what this movie is before I comment on the highlights. Stranger Than Fiction is set up to be a thought piece, something introspective. Director Marc Forster either decided or was handed a script that instead tried to fit this into a romantic comedy genre. It just doesn’t fit and this is the big problem with the film. I think if they’d not had the plot device of the voice a rom-com would have been easily attainable. Likewise, if they’d hinted at love but not switched plot paths with it they would have gotten somewhere. Stranger Than Fiction ends up trying to be too much to too many and instead comes off as hollow.
Highlights? Well, Maggie Gyllenhaal starts weak but finishes strong as a baker that Crick is auditing. I don’t mean to go negative again but I’m obligated to mention that Queen Latifah is present as Kay Eiffel’s (Emma Thompson) writing assistant but there isn’t anything for her to work with and she’s pretty much unnoticed in the movie. Tony Hale was a little better as Crick’s only friend, he’s an Arrested Development alum and here’s hoping he gets more work soon. I love all those Arrested Development guys.
The main thing that unquestionably works here is the thought provoking concept. The idea of someone voice-overing your life is funny and a little bit disturbing too. This theme of comedy and distress is able to carry Stranger Than Fiction all the way to the finish line where unfortunately it falters completely. Stranger Than Fiction did have a chance to be great but it completely whiffed when it went cutesy instead of courageous. I do recommend seeing it if you’re looking for a few laughs or have plenty of time but it’s probably a better saved for a rental on a rainy day.