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Will Ferrell as Harold Crick
Maggie Gyllenhaal as Ana Pascal
Dustin Hoffman as Professor Jules Hilbert
Emma Thompson as Kay Eiffel
Queen Latifah as Penny Escher
Directed by Marc Forster
(Warning: There are a few plot spoilers in this review.)
"It's not the best piece of English literature of the last ten years," Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) says of Kay Eiffel's (Emma Thompson) newest novel, "but it's not bad."
That just about sums up "Stranger Than Fiction," too. In a film about metatextualism, among other things, it seems appropriate that a character from the film should sum up the story he is in, both in scope and effect. If they were going really over the top that may have been the filmmaker's intent, though it doesn't seem likely that anyone would aim only for better than average just to make a point. It's possible, I suppose.
"Death and Taxes" is the title of Kay's newest novel, a book about IRS agent Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) who is so preoccupied with the minutia of his life, especially his penchant for doing everything on time and schedule, that he's lost sight of the big things – love, happiness, etc. – which is unfortunate since a very big and heavy thing is about to squash him dead.
Or at least it was going to. Suddenly, Harold who naturally assumed he was a real person his whole life can hear the narration of his story in his head and is suitably concerned when he learns of his upcoming demise.
With some help from Professor Hilbert, a local literature professor, Harold tries to find out what type of story he is in, specifically if it is a comedy or a tragedy, and what he can do about it. He quickly throws aside the normal strictures of his life in a manic effort to both enjoy his life in the limited time he has left and to find his author—who not being much of a reader, he doesn't initially recognize--and keep her from killing him.
Ferrell is pushed into the unusual position (for him) of being the straight man to his bizarre situation and much of the film's humor comes from his reaction to his plight. He is ably supported by the rest of the cast, many of whom have to make the best of thin characters we've seen before, particularly Thompson--Kay is a misanthrope who hides from the public and is struggling with writer's block--and Maggie Gyllenhaal, whose intellectual free spirited baker is the type of contrived crap that movies are full of.
It's important to keep in mind that it is not a film about the nature of reality and the non-separation of fictional people and their creators, a fact which is quickly accepted once it is proven, so much as it is about what makes up reality and what in reality is really important. What constitutes living a life and what needs to be thrown by the wayside, including art, if it's getting in the way of living a life.
It's ambitious work conceptually, dealing with themes of fate, free will, existentialism, and the moral responsibility between creator and creation. Director Marc Forster ("Finding Neverland") tries to match it with a well-designed film, though it's not as visually ambitious as his previous film "Stay," but it may have needed to be; several of "Stranger Than Fiction's" visual cues are reminiscent of David Fincher and Krzysztof Kies'lowski. Early on, he adds visual accents to the world around Harold, trying to put us in his mindset of numbers and routine, a trick that gradually falls by the wayside as Harold enters the "real" world more and more.
Eventually, Harold discovers who his author is and in the film's best scene, tracks her down to her apartment to discuss his fate with her. Foster, who has spent the entire film up to this point trying to put the audience in both Kay and Harold's shoes in order to experience this very confrontation from both perspectives simultaneously, actually manages to pull it off. Harold has the detachment, moving towards reverence, of a man who is about to meet, for all intents and purposes, God. Kay is disturbed to the point of being nauseous.
Harold gets a copy of the novel of his life and, unable to look at it and his death himself, refers it to Professor Hilbert in order to find out how he dies so that he can get out of it. Hilbert, however, thinks the ending is brilliant and that Harold must die. Art is more real to him than people and rather like Herman Hesse's Father Jacobus, Hilbert doesn't want to leave his ivory tower – in this case, literature – and descend into the real world. It's a strong rebuke of art and it's place in the world. It's an idea introduced late and not well-developed, but interesting nonetheless.
The sum isn't quite the match of its parts, unfortunately. "Stranger Than Fiction" merely poses big questions, it doesn't do much to answer them and tends towards triteness as it goes along, particularly in it's conclusion. They try to have their cake and eat it too, and it just doesn't work. It's not a big surprise. Forster tends towards visually innovative films that fall towards sentiment as they go along. Maybe it's not his fault. Maybe it's not writer Zach Helm's fault either. Most studios don't particularly like tragedies, and neither do a lot of audiences. It's too bad, though. They almost had something.