"Stranger Than Fiction" has a crackerjack premise. Lonely IRS auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) lives his life the same way every day. He gets up in the apartment where he lives alone. He counts the number of strokes in which he brushes his teeth. He walks alone to the bus stop, which he takes to his job. He often will answer a mathematical inquiry from one of his coworkers, which he is able to prattle off the answer to in no time flat. He goes home after work, eats dinner alone, and is in bed at exactly 11:13 p.m. each night. And then, one morning, something occurs that Harold can't quite believe at first. While brushing his teeth, he hears a woman's voice begin to narrate his life, right down to personal information only he would know. Harold has no idea who this person is, but he is determined to figure out her identity when he hears her say, "Little did he know that events had been set in motion that would lead to his imminent death."
Directed by Marc Forster (2005's "Stay
"), "Stranger Than Fiction" is a darkly whimsical dramedy that manages to walk the line between mainstream and unconventional. Wider audiences will be taken by the way that the imaginative story plays itself out with few moments of pandering, while more naturally experimental, or niche, viewers will appreciate that the film doesn't always play things safe or dumb down the script in clichés.
The plot itself is quite an original one, with Harold Crick coming to grips with the knowledge that he may be the lead character in an ultimately tragic novel, and must learn to take chances and value every moment of his life before it is too late. A little more could have been done with this crafty idea in the screenplay by first-timer Zach Helmtoo much of Harold's life goes by without the narrator, unsuspecting reclusive writer Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), adding input into his everyday life, leading one to wonder how there could be enough material for a whole bookbut there is still fun to be had in the way Harold's mundane existence is twisted into literary fodder.
Prospective audience members expecting to see Will Ferrell repeating his over-the-top antics from 2006's "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
" and 2004's "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
" will not find that here. As the soft-spoken and kind of sad Harold Crick, Ferrell takes a low-key approach that is necessary in developing a man who, in following all the rules and unwilling to take chances, has let the possible joy of life start to slip by. There is still humor within his nicely modulated performance, to be sure, but this is a softer, gentler and altogether sweeter Will Ferrell than is normally seen.
His gradual romance with Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a baker who refuses to pay her taxes and Harold comes to audit, is pure magic. It's an unlikely coupling and their relationship begins on a rocky note, but as Harold garners the courage to pursue Ana and they get to know each other, their diverging personalities make for a perfect match. The delightfully quirky Maggie Gyllenhaal (2006's "World Trade Center
") has never, or rarely, been as charming and lovable as she is here, and a lot of what makes this romantic subplot soar is because of her. With only about thirty minutes of screen time, Gyllenhaal is able to develop into a full-rounded and sympathetic character who excels beyond being just a predictable love interest.
As novelist Kay Eiffel, struggling with writer's block and having no idea that she is a god-like presence in the actual life of the protagonist in her latest work, Emma Thompson (2006's "Nanny McPhee
") is deliciously self-deprecating even if her subplot doesn't always work quite as well as Harold's. Brought in as Kay's diligent assistant to ensure that she finish the novel by her publisher's set deadline is the no-nonsense Penny Escher (Queen Latifah). In a supporting role in every sense of the term, Queen Latifah (2006's "Last Holiday
") reminds of what a warm and level-headed presence she can be even when outside of leading lady territory. Little is learned about Penny through the course of the movie, but Latifah makes the slim part her own.
Laying all the cards on the table, "Stranger Than Fiction" admittedly has a few weak areas. Although not necessary in the larger schematic outline, there is a level of disappointment in that the film never explains the paradox of a writer creating and deciding the fate of a character who actually exists. Taken as a straight fable or fantasy, the premise works fine without it, but a few answers would have been nice. Additionally, all of the spare parts of the plot don't come together as satisfactorily as expected, including a mysterious young boy on a bicycle and a bus driverboth sporadically glimpsedwho are to be involved somehow in Harold's approaching death. The payoff of these characters are pat and obvious, while the final resolution of Harold's life and potential end borrows a little too heavily from the final minutes of 1999's "American Beauty
." That picture's finale was deeply provocative and wrenching, while the conclusion of this film doesn't have the emotional pull it is striving for.
Uneven though it may be, "Stranger Than Fiction" is a well-made and smart film that a wide spectrum of viewers are sure to be taken with. The implausible conundrum of a person's life being written as he lives it is handled with a realistic tone that has one questioning as they watch Harold how they would go on about their days knowing that their fate was planned out in advance by a higher power. There have been deeper explorations of such a notion in other pictures, but "Stranger Than Fiction" remains an enjoyable experience that ably mixes existentialism with a lighthearted touch.