Stranger Than Fiction

dir: Marc Foster
[img_assist|nid=806|title=I scream at some unseen narrator sometimes too. It usually gets me arrested.|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=348|height=500]
There were few films stranger yet more accessible last year, and it’s been a while since Charlie Kaufman has had one of his bizarro-world scripts made into a movie. Stranger than Fiction is a case of truth in advertising. It really is stranger than most fictional films have any right to be, but is enjoyable nonetheless.

For the purposes of clarity, I’m not saying this flick has a Kaufman script attached: the writer of idiot/savant treasures like Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind had nothing to do with Stranger than Fiction. It does however possess a script that these days we’d call Kaufmanesque. The actual screenplay is thanks to Zach Helm, who seems to be sniffing from the same batch of glue as Kaufman at the very merry least.

Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is an emotionally stunted dweeb who goes about his life and job as a tax auditor with mathematical, mechanical precision. He has no life outside of the calculation of how many toothbrush strokes he’s performed, steps walked to work or amount of strokes he takes to achieve orgasm. He has no family, no friends, no pets, and no real reason to keep breathing, as far as I can tell.

So when a voice appears out of nowhere telling him in the third person that little does he know he is soon to die, instead of being relieved he seems positively miffed about it. Surely he should be glad that the endless and pointless repetition of his empty days is nearly over? He should be glad to have an exit, to go from obscurity to oblivion in one fell swoop.

Instead he goes somewhat berserk in an attempt to evade the Reaper’s scythe. In truth, the Reaper in this context isn’t Death, it’s a popular recluse author called Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) who seems to be depicting the course of his miserable life. Only Harold can hear the narration of his own life, and the author doesn’t know Harold ‘exists’, or exists as much as any character does in a fictional context.

Of course, at the same time as Harold seems doomed, things start looking up in his miserable life. There is the possibility of meaning. The possibility of love (through conveniently placed plot device Maggie Gyllenhaal). The possibility of living, just as everything is going to be taken away from him by this indifferent, callous writer/god.

It’s never explained as to how this circumstance could come about: that an author can write the life of a living person, but does it have to be? A person perturbed by such an issue either misses the entire point of this endearing film or doesn’t care. The point is that someone not living a life starts living a life spurred on by the prospect of the end.

Will Ferrell, in a long tradition of comedians trying to get credibility by playing straight roles in seeming dramas, is fine in the role. He doesn’t overact or do too much of a Jim Carrey and lets the flick roll along at a gentle pace instead of spazzing out all over the place like he usually does. How much you’ll enjoy the film is dependant on whether you buy Ferrell generally or whether you can buy him in this. It’s not a whole hell of a stretch to depict a guy without a life by being a flat, dull guy for much of a flick’s duration. The hard part is the ‘coming to life’ bit, which is wherein lies the rub. I don’t buy Ferrell in many of the flicks he’s committed (like crimes), but I liked him in this. His performance and role isn’t a million miles away from the Woody Allen substitute he played in the Woody Allen flick Melinda and Melinda.

Another link with that Allen film is the essential question as to whether life is a comedy or a tragedy. In the course of what occurs to Harold, he tries to enlist the aid of a English Lit professor (Dustin Hoffman) who at first thinks Harold is a nutjob, and rightly so, but decides to help him regardless. In the course of his investigations, the professor first tries to get Harold to figure out whether the novel he’s in is a comedy or a tragedy. In Melinda and Melinda, two dinner guests (ironically enough, one of them is played by Wallace Shawn) argue about whether the essence of life is tragedy or comedy, and illustrate it as such by telling a character’s story from both viewpoints, with varying results.

Harold’s convinced it’s a tragedy because of the amount of things that go wrong, but that doesn’t make him crave the grave any more so than before. His romance with the strident hippy baker played by Gyllenhaal awakens a lust for life and a disdain for 9 to 5 work, which is quite disappointing. How we all crave films about how fulfilling and meaningful it is to neglect your loved ones and to dedicate the achievement of your fulfilment through working really hard at a bureaucratic, dead end job.

That would fucking well pack them in to the cheap seats, that would. Cinema ushers would be beating eager patrons off with sticks, which I’m sure you’ll agree is a strange way to beat people off. Stranger even than fiction.

It’s an enjoyable, light film despite the fact that it deals with philosophical concepts, or perhaps because of the way in which it incorporates them into the story. Tone is everything with these kinds of stories. Sure, the premise is a potential dealbreaker, but since it’s already been spoiled for you with this review, you can judge for yourself whether it’s too ludicrous for you to deal with.

The premise is brilliant, I have to say. Some might think it pretentious, or clumsy, but I thought it was wonderfully handled. It’s out there but subtle at the same time. My absolute favourite bit involves a spelling mistake on the writer’s part resulting in Harold walking across town to deliver a bouquet of flours instead of flowers. I have to laugh at something like that, and also have to ask what good quality shit the guy was smoking to come up with something so inspired.

The performances are all spot on and breezy, as they should be. Except for Emma Thompson, who is even more nervy and screwed up than Harold is, and unleashes a truckload of clichés about recluse writer lunatics not seen since J.D. Salinger set up his own MySpace account. As such, she comes to as many confronting realisations about the nature of her writing, her life and her world as Harold does. So from that point of view it’s easy to see the flick as a meta-film about the nature of artistic creativity, the existence of fictional character and the meaning we draw from them, and how valid their ‘lives’ and ‘deaths’ are. And, more importantly, what a difficult and challenging life it is for artists to lead. Oh the pain.

I enjoyed it, I’d watch it again, and I was genuinely moved by the ending. It’s easy to dismiss flicks like this as trifles, but I can derive as much meaning from flicks like this as I can from the latest issue of the week Hollywood dirges focussing on the rights of the downtrodden and oppressed who only live for Hollywood when they’re making a film about them and when they can attach a star in the lead role eagerly mugging the other actors for an Oscar. If not more so.

Stranger than Fiction is about the worth of our lives being derived from how we live them, rather than how and when we end them. And what kind of a soulless troll would you have to be to disagree with that?

7 times a day I hear voices in my head telling me to do terrible stuff like “don’t recycle” or “waste more water” out of 10

“This is a story about a man named Harold Crick and his wristwatch. Harold Crick was a man of infinite numbers, endless calculations, and remarkably few words. And his wristwatch said even less.” – Stranger than Fiction.