Harold Crick (Will Farrell), a bland, dull IRS auditor leads a bland, dull existence. Crick regulates his life down to the minute, catching the bus every morning at the exact same time, taking pre-determined lunch breaks that last exactly 47.5 minutes, and otherwise living his life by a stultifying, suffocating routine that leaves no room for spontaneity or intimate relationships. But all that's about to change. Brushing his teeth on another uneventful morning, Crick begins to near a woman's voice narrating his every move, commenting on his actions and his inactions.
At first, Crick decides to ignore the voice and go on with his routine. First up, auditing a bakery owner, Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Tattooed and anti-authoritarian, Ana is everything that the buttoned-up, constricted Crick isn't. Ana has purposely invited the IRS to audit her as a protest against the federal government's spending priorities. But still, the voice inside Crick's head persists, leading him into public outbursts. Things take a turn for the worse when the female voice informs Crick of his impending demise. How and when Crick will die are still left undetermined.
Crick, newly desperate seeks psychological counseling, but unsatisfied with the diagnosis, decides to seek the help of a literature expert, Professor Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman). At first incredulous, Professor Hilbert gradually accepts that Crick's life is in fact being narrated and helpfully suggests that Crick needs to determine whether Crick is living inside a comedy (he lives and gets the girl) or a tragedy (he dies). Meanwhile, the voice inside Crick's head, Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), is revealed as a singularly unhappy, famous author turned chain-smoking recluse struggling with a seriously bad case of writer's block. Luckily for Crick, he isn't dead yet because she can't decide how best to end his life. But Penny Escher (Queen Latifah), Eiffel's new publisher-provided assistant, hopes to spur Eiffel into completing her novel.
Story wise, Stranger Than Fiction takes a fairly heady, clever premise, e.g., what if the events in your life were being controlled by an unseen narrator/author, and connects it to romantic comedy conventions. Stranger Than Fiction also turns on the permeability between the “real” world and the fictional one. Eiffel may have created Crick, but he's developed a life of his own, with desires and needs contrary to her own. It's actually a truism among authors that characters often push and prod stories in unexpected, unanticipated ways. Stranger Than Fiction also asks what, if any, responsibility authors have toward their creations. The question gains urgency when Eiffel is confronted with the living embodiment of the central character from her unfinished novel.
Hanging over Stranger Than Fiction is one of two outcomes: whether Crick's life will turn out to be a comedy or a tragedy. As a consequence, Stranger Than Fiction has to mix drama and humor, often in equal measure, or at minimum, smoothly transitioning between the two as first one, then the other, take over Crick's life. At that, Stranger Than Fiction succeeds admirably, but Stranger Than Fiction stumbles when the underlying themes are given expression, sliding into clichéd sentimentality and thematic unoriginality the groan-inducing moment Professor Hilbert gives Crick a pep talk about facing mortality and of living every day of your life to its fullest.
Yes, that means we get the obligatory scenes of Crick pursuing his modest dreams and ambitions (e.g., learning to play a guitar, loosening up his overly structured lifestyle, chasing after Ana despite her initial dislike for him and his job, etc.). These scenes may be arguably necessary, but they also slip into blandness (not always, just sometimes). As Crick slides into a life of ease and contentment, Stranger Than Fiction also loses moment, slipping into a predictable longueur that only ends when Crick decides to confront his creator to ask for, or, if necessary, demand a different ending to her novel and, therefore, his life.
On a minor note, having Eiffel use of an antiquated typewriter instead of a word processor or computer for writing her novel serves an important purpose dramatically: unless Eiffel's ending is typed, as opposed to written on a legal pad, Crick has a chance to change the ending in his favor. It's excusable, though, since Forster and Helm needed an easily recognizable visual metaphor to convey the finality of Eiffel's decision, even if it's twenty years out of date. Likewise with a less-than-credible plot turn involving non-working phones (landlines and cell) that's only there to add a minor complication to Crick meeting his creator.
Performance wise, Stranger Than Fiction features the most subdued performance of Will Farrell's onscreen career. Known and loved by millions of moviegoers for his often dim-witted, well-intentioned characters and broad physical comedy, Farrell is obviously trying to segue into dramatic roles or at least broaden his repertoire before his persona becomes irrevocably fixed in the minds of moviegoers who would likely turn away from Farrell's non-comedic roles. Either way, Farrell gives a solid performance, never overplaying the role of the emotionally repressed milquetoast. It's obviously a conscious choice and a good one, whether made by Farrell alone, the director, Marc Foster, or in collaboration.
As for the remainder of the veteran cast, Emma Thompson plays up her character's twitchiness without going into caricature or camp. Maggie Gyllenhaal gives a relaxed, easy-to-watch performance as the romantic interest while Queen Latifah has a few choice interactions with Emma Thompson's character that plays up her persona as smart, no-nonsense, and always ready for a quip. As the slightly befuddled professor, Dustin Hoffman doesn't stretch much, but he also keeps his performance style low key and mellow, a perfect complement for the Farrell's subdued turn as the protagonist.
Still, screenwriter Zach Helm deserves credit for taking modernist ideas about fiction and writing into the mainstream without losing said mainstream audience in the process. While the direction isn't particularly noteworthy, Marc Forster at least keeps the visuals neat and unobtrusive. Likewise with the relatively smooth pacing that only lags once or twice. And any mainstream film that name checks the modernist master of the metafictional novel, Italo Calvino, deserves bonus points from this reviewer.
© Mel Valentin, 10th November, 2006
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