Harold Crick is an IRS agent who lives alone. He counts strokes when brushing his teeth. He times how long it takes to tie his necktie. He counts the steps to the bus stop each morning. Little does he know that he is a character in a novel.
Harold’s fictional status begins to become apparent, both to him and to us, when he starts to hear a voice narrating his life. The voice belongs to novelist Karen Eiffel. Karen is suffering from writer’s block; she needs to kill Harold, but can’t think how. Of course, when Harold hears Karen’s voice say he is going to die, he’s somewhat put out by the news.
I should mention that Harold is played, with surprising subtlety and sensitivity, by Will Ferrell. Stranger Than Fiction is more dramedy than comedy, which offers him membership to a club whose alumni include Peter Sellers (Being There), Steve Carell (Foxhunter, The Big Short) and Jim Carrey (The Truman Show, Man on the Moon): a club for comedy actors who have made successful attempts at “proper” acting.
Stranger Than Fiction actually shares a little of The Truman Show’s DNA. Harold, like Truman, finds himself at the mercy of a seemingly omniscient force (albeit a single author rather than a television production crew). Stranger Than Fiction, like The Truman Show, finds opportunities to have fun with the apparent rules of its premise. And like The Truman Show, Stranger Than Fiction coalesces into a heart warming and crowd pleasing affirmation of the human condition.
Back to Ferrell. He trades the full-throated, imbecilic shouting for which he is famous for a quiet, introspective performance. We’re so used to his arrogant or clueless characters gurning for the camera that it comes as a shock just how perfect Ferrell’s face is for the sadness and dissatisfaction required of him here. As he becomes more aware of his singular situation, Ferrell is afforded opportunities for some of that shouting and gurning, but they feel like real reactions, never caricatures.
To help understand what is happening to him, Harold seeks the advice of literary professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman). And so Stranger Than Fiction becomes, in part, Literary Theory: The Movie; a crash course in genre, plotting, comedy versus tragedy, third-person omniscient narration, etc. If that all sounds a bit dry, don’t worry; it isn’t. There’s a sly playfulness to these literary explorations, delivered with Hoffman’s affable authority.
As will be obvious to anyone familiar with Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man, Harold must eventually meet his writer. When Harold Crick does meet Karen Eiffel (played by Emma Thompson, who seems to be channelling a little of Dylan Moran’s Bernard Black), she doesn’t appear too concerned with how exactly one of her literary creations came to be a real boy, as it were. This is a wise move on in the part of writer Zach Helm and director Marc Forster; had these characters dived head first down that rabbit hole, I think the film would have collapsed under the weight of all that existential angst.
Stranger Than Fiction, in fact, is more about the philosophy of Howard’s predicament than the metaphysics of it. It is about living the life you want to live, no matter what that life may be. (Harold, it seems, wants to live a life learning to play Wreckless Eric on guitar.) It ends up being no stranger than most fiction, but sweeter and more life affirming.