Originally published in the North Central Chronicle on January 18, 2009, as part of a series called “Chad Picks Classic Flicks.”
An artist may not set out to create something that changes the world, but he just might do it by mistake. Marc Forster’s 2006 film Stranger Than Fiction is a movie about fate—or “the continuity of life and the inevitability of death” as one of its character puts it—and also the consequences of breaking continuity and challenging inevitability. Stranger Than Fiction subversively wrestles with these complicated ideas while maintaining the guise of a quirky Will Ferrell vehicle. That’s why I think it’s a modern classic.
There are really two stories going on in this movie that are hugely dependent upon each other. The core story is about author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) writing another in a series of acclaimed tragedies, but due to writer’s block she can’t figure out how to kill her main character, Harold Crick.
She has most of the story down though: Harold (Will Ferrell) is an IRS auditor living a painfully rigid and boring life. Everything in Harold’s world is simple, angular, and calculated. He can quickly compute complicated math problems in his head and count everything from the number of strokes he makes while brushing his teeth to the exact distance he is from his apartment. He has one friend that we know of, Dave, and his life is probably just as uninteresting as Harold’s. He follows this path with steadfast discipline until he meets Anna Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a beautiful bakery owner with a revolutionary’s bent, some unpaid back taxes, and a healthy scorn for the IRS and for Harold.
This is where a glitch in the universe adds a second dimension to the story: Once he meets Anna, Harold begins to hear Eiffel’s omniscient voice narrating his thoughts and actions as she writes them in her novel. First he is confused, then annoyed, and then scared after she says Harold awaits his “imminent death.” These two stories collide in Harold’s world, jarring him out of whack for the first time.
He tries to make sense of the voice in his head, visiting first a psychiatrist who brands him a schizophrenic, then a professor of literature (Dustin Hoffman) who decides that Harold is in fact a character in his own life story, and that he needs to figure out whether he is in a tragedy or a comedy. “In a tragedy, you die,” the professor says. “In a comedy, you get hitched.” Harold then sets off to discover this much, tallying in a notebook moments with Anna that constitute a “tragedy” or a “comedy.”
From there it’s an unlikely courtship where the auditor falls for the audited. The story is not meant to be realistic; rather, it is a fable set in a heightened reality. Filmed in Chicago, the director created that reality by discovering angles and perceptions a skilled photographer would see, rather than a tourist hitting the hot spots. The IRS office, Harold’s apartment, and even the streets themselves are white-washed, sterile, and modern.
Harold’s world is plain and starkly angular, whereas Anna’s is full of curves and colors. Harold gradually starts to stray from his straight and narrow path and finds liberation—this aided by his continuing quest to discover the source of the voice in his head and why he is on a path towards his death.
The screenwriter Zach Helm says the film is ultimately about saving lives. A bold statement, to be sure, but it’s nonetheless true. The story illustrates the need for saving people from the cold grip of uniformity by giving them something to live for. After their first very unpleasant encounter, Harold falls for Anna and she unintentionally saves his life by finally giving him something to live for. Inspired by his new emancipation, he goes to the movies, he buys a guitar, and he wears jeans for probably the first time in his life. He adds color to his life.
However, the angst created by Eiffel’s incessant voice in his head never really goes away, even after his liberation, and so his quest for understanding and peace continues until he discovers Eiffel and meets her face to face. It’s quite the moment.
Watching this movie again reminded me of two other modern classics: Adaptation and The Truman Show. Both are stories set in a heightened reality, with men who are stuck in a groove and have the desire to get out of it but can’t. In the case of Adaptation, it is Nicolas Cage’s character’s self-loathing that prevents his personal liberation; in The Truman Show it is Truman’s own fears of the unknown and also the powerful external forces around him that try to keep him in the status quo.
I realized having watched it many times that Stranger Than Fiction is my favorite kind of movie. It’s funny, it’s touching, but it also makes you think. It’s uplifting and philosophical, artistic and quick-witted. The cast is oddly perfect: Will Ferrell plays Harold with beautiful restraint, and Maggie Gyllenhaal provides power and tenderness when needed. Marc Forster, the director, injects the same unique flair he did in his wonderful 2004 picture Finding Neverland.
It didn’t appear on many top 10 lists in 2006 (though I did name it as one of my favorite films of the 2000s), but I think Stranger Than Fiction will age well because of its timelessness and emotional appeal — that is, if Will Ferrell would stop phoning in such mindless ballyhoo like Semi-Pro. One can only hope.