A review of Stranger Than Fiction

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Stranger Than Fiction
113 min, 1 February 2007
Written by Zach Helm
Directed by Marc Forster
Starring Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, Maggie Gyllenhaal, PG13

Stranger Than Fiction is a film with a heavy dose of the absurd. Harold Crick is an IRS agent who lives a very careful, numeric sort of life. He counts toothbrush strokes, steps, and in a way which is mathematically elegant, ensures that he uses exactly the right amount of steps to get to the bus, and saves time by tying only one Windsor knot. His watch, who also has a role to play in this story, keeps track of everything. But one day Harold begins to hear a narrator describing Harold’s actions as he does them. While Harold can hear her, she cannot hear him, and when he hears that his death is imminent, he sets out on a quest to find the narrator and save his own life.

The relationship between Harold’s author Karen Effiel and Harold is a complex one. Is Karen Effiel Harold’s God? In what sense is Harold real? After all, the whole story is a fiction and both Karen and Harold are characters within it, playing their parts as they spiral around each other. Which came first—the protagonist or the narrator? How about the metacritic English professor who spends his life examining these two? Is his claim to reality any more concrete? All of them will ultimately disappear (including the actors playing their parts). So does art itself have a greater claim to reality than these individual plotlines?

What makes this quirky film so successful is that, unlike many post-modern films, Stranger Than Fiction is a humanistic film full of warmth. It never descends into meaninglessness or chaos. Harold’s development as he moves from neat precision to love ridden chaos is one which the reader can identify with. The make-up less Thomson plays the role of Effiel with beautiful expression and intensity. Ferrell too breaks out of his stereotypical buffoonery and plays Harold with great warmth and integrity. Similarly Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, and Maggie Gyllenhaal are all exceptional, funny, loveable, and strange enough to be completely realistic. Every character has depth, passion, silliness, and beauty.

While the premise of the story is odd and eccentric, and perhaps might raise untenable questions about the nature of truth and narration, the story is so charming, and so well acted, it creates more truths than complications. There are many funny moments—from
Hoffman’s Professor Jules Hilbert’s initial grilling—“I’ve worked out conclusively that you are not a golem. Doesn’t that make you feel good?” (para-quote) to Harold’s box of “flours” that he brings to Ana, his love interest (Gyllenhaal).

Aside from the grand scheme of this film, which is definitely feel good, humanistic and positive, there are many tiny features which add to the cleverness and satisfaction. The city of Chicago has never looked so attractive. The parallel between Crick’s ordered life, and its representation by the Golden Ratio image, and the ordered architecture of the city is handled with subtlety and power (both seem quite beautiful even as they are being treated with some irony). The characters names are references to great scientists/mathematicians eg Crick, Eiffel, Pascal, and the film is full of meta-references, from Magritte to The Beatles, Monty Python, Calvano, and Escher. This is a wonderful, funny, pithy, and enjoyable film which, despite the lightness of the plot, the romance, and the ‘life conquers art’ theme, is surprisingly deep, leaving the viewer pondering the questions it raises about life and death long after the film finishes. It’s a particularly enjoyable film for anyone who reads a lot. Many are lampooned in this film—the irreverent author with writer’s block, the pompous self-obsessed literature professor, the boring ‘tax man’, and the idealistic anti-government protestor. But every single character in this film, from the office worker in the next cubicle to the personal assistant sent by Eiffel’s publisher, Banneker Press (another mathematician reference) is likeable.

However absurd the premise is, Stranger than Fiction is completely believable. However ridiculous the characters are, every one is absolutely realistic and multi-dimensional. Stranger than Fiction is a wonderful film, as easy on the eye and brain as any Hollywood blockbuster, but like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind manages to leave the viewer with more than they arrived with. For the literary minded, Stranger than Fiction is near perfect. For anyone else, well, I can’t imagine anyone not liking it. It’s funny, charming, sweet, but never dips into cliché. The acting is sensational, the script is full of linguistic power, and the film is fast paced and deep.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, and Quark Soup.