Stranger Than Fiction
There has been a plethora of philosophical American movies over the last decade, attracting a surprising amount of Hollywood stars, chief amongst them Dustin Hoffman (also starring in I Heart Huckabees). Each tend to focus on free will and interconnectivity, theories often asked of us but never examined exclusively, preferring to focus on entire schools of thought rather than a specific principle.
Enter “Stranger Than Fiction”, an attempt by Will Ferrell to be considered as a capable actor in his own right, even if it is in the familiar ground of comedy. However despite being absurd in it’s leanings, it is thoroughly conventional in execution, answering an open-ended question with humanity and poignance. These personal relationships that develop are the project’s strongest asset aside from the simpler scope, more than making up for the uncertain conclusion.
Harold Crick (Ferrell) lives his life based entirely on the timing of his wristwatch, timing and counting every action to the point that routine is his only solace. For a bureaucrat and accountant working within the Internal Revenue Service this might not be a defining characteristic, if it weren’t for the voice now narrating his life with a clarity and vocabulary he is incapable of. Referred to a university lecturer Jules Hilbert (Hoffman), he must uncover whether his story is a comedy or tragedy and how to live his life for the first time in years. Such an opportunity may just have presented itself in the form of tax delinquent Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal)…
Meanwhile author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is assigned a new personal assistant Penny (Queen Latifah), her publisher unsure if she can meet her increasingly uncertain deadline because she can’t figure out how to kill her main character.
Ferrell, a man I would generally have strongly negative feelings against in any role assuages my regular fears by evoking the sort of humanity I never dreamt him capable of, manoeuvring from comedy to tragedy quickly and seamlessly. Key amongst his newfound charms lies the connection he develops with Gyllenhaal, a proficient actress in her own right who again proves her worth and despite outshining her paramour in ability, he manages to holds his own quite well.
Hoffman and Thompson are the key to Harold’s understanding of himself, looming over everything he does, essentially with a more thoughtful view than he could provide. As a result, he avoids coming off as unlikeable or a man who willingly suffers fate from beginning to end as a merely passive actor. Conversely however, often Hoffman can be too knowledgeable in his understanding, leaving little for the main character and by extension the audience to discover, forcing metaphors to become too literal or obvious in the process.
Eiffel’s assistant Penny however is unnecessary both in her role and ability. If it was director Marc Forster’s wish to delve further in Thompson’s psyche, it could easily be done without her involvement, the lines better left to the writer herself. Perhaps in humanising such a role, they are attempting to make her more than just a metaphor or symbol yet that same distant narration is more important to Crick’s personal understanding and progression than our more personal view of her, the symbiotic relationship between them left hanging.
Often times the proceedings carry a certain familiarity rather than predictability, yet the bittersweet ending could have ironically benefitted more from the original suggested than what was born out if it. It is however human and to do so is imperfect. Whether or not this provides the kind of closure the film yearns for, I’m still unsure but it is a wonderful examination if nothing else.