Movie review: Stranger Than Fiction by Marc Forster

Directed by: Marc Forster
Written by: Zach Helm
Genre: literary drama, romantic comedy
Release date: 2006

Harold Crick: Will Ferrell
Ana Pascal: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Professor Jules Hilbert: Dustin Hoffman
Kay Eiffel: Emma Thompson


Harold Crick leads a completely predictable, boring, lonely life. He works as an IRS agent and his only entertainment is counting: he counts the steps to a bus stop, the minutes of his coffee break, the brushes of his toothbrush, the random sums thrown at him by his colleagues.

Cover of "Stranger Than Fiction"
Cover of Stranger Than Fiction

One day, however, he discovers that his life is the subject of a book currently being written by a best-selling author, Kay Eiffel, whose creative block has temporarily stunted her repeated efforts to kill him off. How lovely. Now either he finds that author and persuades her to change the dramatic ending (Kay is known for killing off her characters in a spectacular manner) or he dies. Rather sooner than later.

The truth is Harold, fictional or not, doesn’t want to die. He’s just met a beautiful baker, Ana Pascal, bought himself a fender stratocaster and discovered a real passion for home-made cookies. Life is beautiful, damn it! Why does he need to die? In order to find professional help he visits a literature professor Jules Hilbert, a fan of Eiffel’s books. Will they be able to find a good solution? What is more important: a longer life of Harold, his happiness or just a brilliant novel?

My impressions:

Let me deal with the good points first.

I admit when I read a blurb on the dvd cover of that movie I salivated. A comedy about metatextualism? Finally something original, intelligent and fun! Bring it on!!!
It started so nicely too.

 “Death and Taxes” is the title of Kay’s newest novel, a book about IRS agent Harold Crick who is so preoccupied with the mundane minutia of his life that he’s lost sight of the bigger things –like love, happiness, etc. It is indeed unfortunate since a very big and heavy thing is about to squash him dead. Kay loves doing her characters in. The problem is Harold has become somehow real (it is never explained how and why, my first carping here). His creator is simply left in the dark; so is Harold but for a short period of time only. After he hears a female voice in his head, narrating his everyday living routine, he must find an explanation ASAP and persuade Kay to let him live a bit longer. Theory: brilliant. The execution seemed nice at first too.

The film’s minimalist design, with unbreakingly gray, impersonal IRS offices and near-empty rooms, keep the focus where it belongs: on the words and the action. “Stranger Than Fiction” is both about a novel and like a novel; you eagerly await the turning of the pages. For roughly the first half of the movie the narration  made me both interested and involved which was good. Mind you it’s important to remember that it is not a film about the nature of reality and the non-separation of fictional people and their creators so much as it is about what makes up reality and what in reality is really important; what constitutes living a life and what needs to be thrown by the wayside, including art, if it’s getting in the way of living a life. Such a premise sounded fantastic, with so many great slapstick possibilites, but unfortunately was dumbed down very soon.

Of course no movie can be very bad if it features Emma Thompson who here played the refreshingly   sardonic chain-smoking novelist stalking death for her long-lost inspiration. Some scenes, like the one in the guitar shop where Harold was choosing the instrument of his dreams, or the one with Kay visiting a hospital ward and searching for viable death causes, were indeed great – intelligent and very funny. And here my praise must end.

The dialogue fell too often flat, being  neither witty nor off-kilter enough and I do wonder why. There were so many potenital moments of high comedy and the director simply seemed completely lost how to birng them out properly and make the most of them. Imagine you unexpectedly find out that you are a sentient fictional character whose life is being written by a contemporary author. You have a unique opportunity to meet her in person. What’s more as soon as you meet it becomes obvious that the book featuring you is not finished so a lot can be edited/added/ improved. What would you do? Wouldn’t it be normal and completely understandable to ask for some changes concerning your skills or physical appearance or occupation? Unfortunately our poor Harold doesn’t even dream of doing so. Instead (spoiler, highlight to read) he meekly agrees with everything, even with his premature death.

 Still the worst was the ending – full of lousy feelgood scenes that carried all the depth of a phone company TV ad and left me really underwhelmed. It seemed to convey the same old message: sure, you might be able to control your destiny in a Hollywood movie as long as the outcome is a saccharine one. Plus you must save one of the following: a) our lovely western civilization b) your great country (i.e. the US of A) c) a kid or kids d) a puppy (if the movie has a limited budget, or the hero is a philosophically inclined misanthrope).

Final verdict:

I don’t regret watching this one but I admit I expected a far better movie. “Stranger Than Fiction” merely poses big questions; what a pity it doesn’t do much to answer them. The movie also tends towards triteness as it goes along, particularly in its conclusion. They wanted to have their cake and eat it too, and it just doesn’t work – it’s not a big surprise. Still kudos for trying and some scenes were worth the effort of suffering the bland ending.

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4 Responses to Movie review: Stranger Than Fiction by Marc Forster

  1. heidenkind says:

    Aw, I really liked this one! But then I expected it to be dumb.

  2. The ending was pretty dumb but the rest was fairly good! 🙂

  3. I believe I have this one sitting on my DVD shelf waiting to be watched. Was it my dad? Well, someone I know watched it and liked it. Maybe I should give this a chance.

  4. Maybe. 🙂 Overall it wasn't bad.

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