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One Character in Search of an Author

“I decided if I was going to make the world a better place, I’d do it with cookies.” –Ana Pascal, Stranger Than Fiction

I decided I was going to go see Stranger Than Fiction as soon as I saw the trailer a few months back. It was the latest from the director of Finding Neverland (who, irrelevantly, is directing the movie version of The Kite Runner, due out next year), it had a more-than-competent-looking cast, and (most importantly) it seemed like a great idea for a movie.

The story, as the opening voice-over informs us, is about Harold Crick (Will Ferrell). Harold works for the IRS, and there is really very little else to say about him. He gets up. He goes to work. He comes home. He goes to bed. His only hobby is counting (or, more precisely, calculating). He counts the strokes of the toothbrush on each tooth. He counts the number of steps to the bus. His coffee breaks are precisely timed. He is constantly aware of the concrete values and amounts of his environment, but he has no appreciation for cool breezes or warm cookies . . . the pleasures that cannot be measured. Harold’s unique perspective is communicated visually by a clever graphical overlay which is vaguely reminscent of a cross between the mathematical epiphany scenes from A Beautiful Mind and an Excel spreadsheet.

At some point while all of this is being explained to us, the narrator breaks off abruptly and Harold glances around suspiciously. He has suddenly become aware of the narration the audience has been listening to, and he is confused. Is the voice coming from his toothbrush? Who is it? Why is it narrating (and sometimes almost controlling) his every action? Is he insane, or might there be some other explanation (since the voice keeps getting everything right)? Why does it sound so much like Emma Thompson? Okay, maybe not that last one.

At first, Harold just tries to go on as though it isn’t there, even as it distracts him from his work and his change in behavior begins to be noticed by co-workers. Soon, though, it starts to affect him in other ways. For one thing, he finds himself paying more attention to Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the baker he is auditing, than he is comfortable with. And then there is the bombshell: “Little did he know that a chain of events had been set in motion which would lead to his imminent death.” Harold needs help.

He gets it from Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), a professor of literature at the local university who agrees to help Harold analyze the ongoing story of his life. Is it a comedy or a tragedy? Meanwhile, we finally meet Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson, in top form), an eccentric British author suffering from writer’s block (she can’t figure out how to knock off her main character). She’s taken so long to finish her latest book that her publisher has sent her an assistant (Queen Latifah) to move things along. And there’s the set-up.

All of the actors are very good and very comfortable in their roles. Emma Thompson, as I already hinted, is particularly fun to watch, but Gyllenhaal is excellent as well. Hoffman’s character was entertaining, but not quite right. A chuckle-worthy parody of a lit professor who doesn’t quite ring true all of the time. Plus, my eagle eyes spotted a copy of Left Behind in the midst of his wall of books, and I couldn’t keep away from it every time there was a scene in his office. What was that doing there? Ferrell is pretty good as well, but his character never really advances beyond straight-man for the movie’s premise and supporting cast.

The film is a great collection of elements which work very well together to produce something more. It is full of nice, memorable touches: the sentient wristwatch, Eiffel’s various imagined death scenes, Harold’s nerdy co-worker and his “Sleep Pod 2,” a hilarious montage of nature documentaries which produce unexpected tension . . . I could go on, but I don’t want to give too much away.

Stranger Than Fiction is a sort of reverse Big Fish: a quirky movie that is high on life, concerning a main character who is visibly controlled by the story someone else is writing about him (as opposed to visibly controlling the story he is writing about himself). It raises questions, both serious and frivolous, about free will vs. fate, the value of artistic integrity, the proper approach to literary analysis, and the power of the creative process. It is a movie that should perhaps have ended 10 minutes sooner, but knows it and, in a charmingly self-aware sort of way, doesn’t care.

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~ by Jared on November 11, 2006.

2 Responses to “One Character in Search of an Author”

  1. After seeing the trailer a few months ago I’ve really been wanting to see this movie. Will Ferrell has long been one of my favorite contemporary comic actors, and the concept of the movie sounds interesting. I’m glad to see that you liked it; I think I’ll go see it this week.

  2. Nice Pirandello reference in the title by the way, haha.

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