New-Release Tuesday: Stranger Than Fiction

Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

If you like your reality-bending narratives cynical, comic, and warped, Stranger Than Fiction is not for you. Stick with Charlie Kaufmann.

If, however, you’d just as soon have your bent reality served romantic, gently dramatic, and merely rebellious, then this now-classic film from director Marc Forster might just fill the bill.

To start with, I should probably mention that Fiction bears little to no resemblance to Forster’s other films.

You’d probably also best be warned that the film is not designed to be the laugh-a-minute comedy that the film’s trailers suggest. Fiction is its own unique animal, and it’s more concerned with the dramatic and philosophical implications of its premise than it is with its subversive or comic potential. So don’t expect to see Will Farrell do his Ricky Bobby, Buddy the Elf, or Ron Burgundy shtick.

In fact, don’t bother much with expectations at all. Stranger Than Fiction will defy most of them.

Farrell plays Harold Crick, an auditor for the IRS. One day, while methodically brushing his teeth, he starts hearing a voice. A woman’s voice—not telling him what to do, as tends to be the case with schizophrenia, but simply narrating (with slight irony) what it is that Harold is actually doing (“accurately, and with a better vocabulary”). Crick, it seems, is the central character of a professional writer’s novel. As is possible in works of fiction, inanimate objects—such as his wristwatch, a bicycle, and buses—start actively influencing the events of his life, and ordinary encounters—such as his audit of an anarchist bakery owner—take on entirely new dimensions.

The writer’s narration breaks up the monotony and routine of Crick’s life, and then blithely announces his impending death.

To help deal with the drama, Crick first consults an IRS guidance counselor, and then a professional psychologist who recommends talking with a literature professor—all of whom are literally (and literarily) short-sighted, unable to provide much relief for Crick’s predicament. During a visit to Professor Hilbert’s office, though, Crick discovers the identity of the narrator: none other than Kay Eiffel, a novelist famous for killing off each and every one of her protagonists. She’s got writer’s block, though; and in the process of figuring out how to make Crick die, Eiffel finds her world inevitably colliding with Crick’s because the two are the same world.

The comic setup and the poignant payoff aside, Farrell and Emma Thompson (as Eiffel) are brilliant. For the first time on film, Farrell projects three-dimensional humanity, and without the kind of mugging that Jim Carrey or Robin Williams have resorted to when they made the same attempt (Garp excepted). Thompson, once again proving that frantic neuroses, crooked teeth, ordinary hair, and middle-aged undoctored skin are far more attractive than vapid perfection, projects the full horror of success-fueled pop artistry. As an added bonus, Maggie Gyllenhall absolutely shines as Ana Pascal, proprietor of “The Uprising,” a bakery which calls upon its patrons “to love, to rebel.”

Outside The Uprising, after his first encounter with Pascal—during which Eiffel’s narration reveals Crick’s attraction to the baker while The Clash’s “Death or Glory” plays in the background—Crick rails in fury at the attendant narration. “Harold Crick cursed the heavens in futility,” Eiffel intones. “No, I’m not,” Crick shouts back. “I’m cursing you, you stupid voice. So shut up!”

Zach Helm’s script is pure delight. Not only does it capture the nuances of the creative process as well as Adaptation or Barton Fink (and delight in wry in-jokes about the history of theoretical mathematics), it is a serious and entertaining examination of the question, “What would you do if you knew for sure that you were going to die?” Crick’s coworker Dave has a pretty simple answer: “You’re never too old for Space Camp.”

Crick’s situation is a little more complicated than Dave’s. “There’s something very poetic in the understanding of one’s place in the world,” says Helm in the film’s production notes. “But it’s far more dramatic when such understanding occurs only days before that life ends.”

Crick gets various perspectives on his dilemma. First, Hilbert observes that “you don’t control your fate.” Hilbert later points out that Eiffel’s narration is written in the “third person omniscient.” To which Crick replies, “Jesus!” Yes, shades of the Christian savior, who, like Crick, more-or-less implored, “You’re asking me to knowingly face my death?!!?” It soon becomes apparent, though, that Eiffel’s narration is not as omniscient as it seems. She doesn’t know the end of the story. Unlike God, she’s making it up as she goes, and Crick himself has a role to play in its writing. “Nothing is written” unalterably in stone, as David Lean’s T. E. Lawrence observed.

For Hilbert, and hence for Crick, the real trick is figuring out whether Eiffel is writing a tragedy—in which outside forces or a fatal flaw dictate the hero’s demise—or a comedy, in which a happy ending triumphs over potential loss and sorrow. “We all have to die eventually,” adds Helm. “But the real question is whether you perceive your life in the end as mostly tragic or mostly filled with love and joy.”

As illustrated by the choices of Harold Crick, the answer is one of perspective and purpose. Living tragically has a romantic appeal; but to live hopefully, one must lose an appetite for the tragic. Real life may just do that to you, if you’re lucky or blessed.

You can watch Stranger Than Fiction for free at Sony Crackle (with advertisement breaks). It is also available for a small fee on YouTube (among other places).