BY MICHELLE MEDFORD
This is a movie about Harold Crick. He’s a man in a novel who begins to realize that he’s a man in a novel. For a debut screenplay from Zach Helm, it’s a hell of a kick-off. The idea alone is so beautiful but under the direction of Marc Forster, it’s perfect. You know how sometimes you watch a movie and wish it was a novel? Or watch a novel adaptation and wish it had never been touched? Well, Stranger than Fiction is a film about a novel that best exists as a film about a novel. It’s the best of both worlds, as our fictional author, Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), reads us her novel about Mr. suit-and-tie, to-the-minute, dull-as-cardboard Harold Crick (Will Ferrell). It’s an omniscient movie about an omniscient novel.
In Stranger than Fiction, we follow Harold toward his “imminent” death while his creator contemplates his fate. However, as she writes, her words begin to narrate Harold’s life. While Karen searches for inspiration in sickly hospitals, in a thunderstorm at the roadside and at edges of buildings with her assistant Penny (Queen Latifah), Harold, who hears her narrating voice in his head, rules out that he’s insane and begins to seek advice from English professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman). He’s also busy keeping up with his “life” as an IRS agent auditing local baker Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal).
Only because we most recognize him as Ron Burgundy or Ricky Bobby, it’s surprising to see Ferrell fit right into this dramedic role. He’s the most boring man in the world who is about to die. He’s so real yet so fabricated. No one really (hopefully) lives their life to the second on their wristwatch, yet when Harold realizes that his impending death is real and his eyes well up, I just want to hug him.
The struggle between reality and fiction is a main theme in the film. Is Harold actually real? If he isn’t, are the people he meets real? Is his world real? Is Karen’s world real? The film really plays off this in subtleties, like the clouds on a mural moving when Harold speaks about his feelings of Ana or the way Harold’s wristwatch seems to possess a mind of its own.
Hoffman also makes us believe in his weirdly yucky character (yes, I said yucky) who works at the pool, passing through showers with bare-naked butts daily, wearing brown on brown at work and snacking on plain yogurt. It’s just kind of icky. But I know it, that man is out there somewhere teaching English.
He’s also really funny (reminding me of his I ♥ Huckabees character), with some of the best lines in the film done with a strictly-business face, like when he questions Harold about his life, ruling out novels he might be in, asking if he’s “king of the lanes” or “king of the trolls” or if he finds himself “inclined to solve murder mysteries in large luxurious homes to which [he], let me finish, to which [he] may or may not have been invited?”
The whole film is littered with hilarious, plainly-stated jokes, like when Karen chimes in mid-convo, “Why was Harold talking to this man? This man was an idiot; this man used words like ‘wibbly-wobbly’ and ‘convo,’ and explained that trees were trees. Of course trees were trees; Harold knew that trees were trees.” There are some truly brilliant lines in this film.
But the most beautiful part of this film is its storytelling. It’s so layered, complex and significant. There are worlds within worlds, lives within lives, reality meshing with fiction and great dialogue. Characters are detailed with annoying habits and a lot is unpredictable. Watching this film actually leaves you with the fulfilling feeling of completing a poetically-written novel, one that you’ll want to savour again and again.