Perhaps I should begin this review by acknowledging that I’m a sucker for this sort of metatextual film, tweaking the distinction between fiction and reality. I am, after all, the sort of person whose idea of introspection is to imagine how an omniscient narrator might describe me. When something bad happens to me, my first consolation is the thought that I can turn it into a good story, and when I’m angry, I tend to say biting things I don’t mean due to my longstanding, secret desire to play the villain in a Jane Austen novel. Needless to say, I adored the premise of Stranger Than Fiction, the tale of a man with a narrator stuck in his head, from the moment I heard it.
To his credit, though, screenwriter Zach Helm has more in mind than an archly clever play on fictional constructs. Although the film, directed with subtle polish by Marc Forster, never loses its gentle playfulness, it sincerely grapples with philosophy (and not just postmodernism), and it treats its characters with real heart, not ironic detachment. In retrospect, I don’t think it achieves all of its considerable ambitions—this is a movie trying to be a high-concept comedy, a romance, an allegory, and a metaphysical treatise all at once—but it has moments of real beauty, the kind you only get when you’re trying to say something True.
Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, the unfortunate man with the narrator in his head. At first, the voice is merely unnerving, an annoyance, but when it ominously alludes to his “imminent death,” Harold begins to panic. He enlists a literature professor (played with dry wit by Dustin Hoffman) to help him find his author, and they eventually discover that she is Kay Eiffel (the incomparable Emma Thompson), an acclaimed but tortured novelist who tends to kill off her protagonists.
But Harold doesn’t want to die. He’s just met and fallen in love with an anarchist baker (hee!), he’s learning to play the guitar, and he’s beginning to let go of his compulsion to count each stroke of his toothbrush. In short, he’s starting to enjoy life, and the narrator is forcing him to confront the reality of death.
Ferrell’s performance here isn’t as much of a departure for him as it might initially appear. He has inverted his usual persona by lacing poignancy with absurdity instead of the other way around, but his trademark lack of vanity is still present in Stranger Than Fiction, just channeled in different directions: warblingly serenading Ana the baker, for example, rather than stripping naked and streaking with his arms flailing in the air. The chemistry between him and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays Ana, warms the screen, not with an electrical storm but with a comforting, endearing crackle. The romance eschews by-the-numbers rom-com banter for something far more delicate and real.
But the romance is subordinate to the twisty, philosophical narrative conceit, which works (more or less) thanks in large part to the remarkably fine performances of Hoffman and Thompson. Hoffman’s Professor Hilbert is marvelously dry, the perfect academic; he seems to accept Harold’s outrageous claim not because he necessarily believes it but because he finds it intriguing whether it’s true or not. When Harold quotes his narrator as saying, “Little did he know…,” Hilbert is delighted, exclaiming that he once taught a seminar on the “little did he know” device.
Thompson has the broadest role—the unstable, morbid victim of writer’s block (a plight with which I can empathize, in my small way, seeing as how I’ve labored over this single blog entry for days)—and she makes the most of it, drawing laughs with her distracted, macabre quest to find the perfect way to kill off Harold (whom she doesn’t know is real). Performances like this remind one that though American audiences associate with Thompson with Shakespeare and Austen and other period dramas, she got her start as a comedian.
For Stranger Than Fiction is very, very funny, in its surreal way, but it’s also unnerving, and it should be. The essential conflict here—as old as humanity itself—is the tension between a vision of a life of agency and one of predestination. The movie finds whimsy in that but refuses to shy away from Harold’s fear that he is only a pawn of the author (Author?). The moment in which a bulldozer plows through his wall—an external force refusing to allow him to hide from the “plot”—is sharply funny and then sobering.
Helm’s screenplay also explores how we deal with the inevitability of death, and there, too, it sounds a few deeply moving notes, worthy of reflection as one walks out of the theater. The ending might be something of a muddle, even a trick to escape its own logic, but as I mulled that over in the movie’s final minutes, Thompson’s character offered an explanation of why she (and, by extension, Helm) had concluded the story the way she did, and it’s heartbreakingly beautiful—maybe not logical, maybe not fair, maybe not “correct,” but truly, truly beautiful.