Starring: Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson
Written by: Zach Helm
We all wish that our lives were interesting enough to be the plot of a book or a movie. For Harold Crick, this wish is fulfilled to the nth degree and to a very literal point. An actual author is writing out his life and, in this case, his death. It’s an interesting premise and, I admit with chagrin, is very close to the premise of one of my plays, but Stranger Than Fiction tries to do a little too much and muddles the story with excessive characters and too many plot elements.
Harold Crick (Will Farrell) is an ordinary IRS agent who lives a dull, repetitive life and is probably obsessive compulsive with a numbers fixation. He also seems to have a magical wristwatch. Anyway. Minus the wristwatch, which he doesn’t know is magical, everything is going along fine until Harold starts hearing a voice narrating his every action, right down to what he thinks of when he hears specific sounds. If that isn’t crazy enough, the voice off-handedly mentions something about his imminent death, obviously throwing Harold into a tizzy of concern. The catch here is that the narrator is a actually the author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) and she doesn’t know that Harold actually exists.
The plot breaks down, however, when the audience stops to ask, “Does Harold actually exist?” Or is he just a figment of Eiffel’s imagination? If he is real, how does Eiffel have any control over him (and over the people he interacts with, too)? She’s obviously able to control the future as well, apparently, if she’s able to foretell Crick’s death. There are no answers to be had, so it’s up to the viewer to suspend his or her disbelief.
The focus of the film is Crick, played admirably straight by Farrell, demonstrating masterful control over his craft. He has a very nice, albeit predictable, arc and we get a full picture of who Crick was and is. Unfortunately, the story keeps getting bogged down in characters that should have been absorbed by other characters. Penny, Eiffel’s newly-assigned assistant, is an unnecessary character written to give Eiffel someone to have dialog with. Crick also ends up talking to too many shrinks. Sometimes we’re stuck watching inert scenes that come close to achieving the funny they were written for. For instance, Eiffel spends time in the ER of a hospital, looking for inspiration to kill her character. Another example is Crick’s visit to literary professor Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) where we’re dragged through a tragically unfunny Q&A trying to find out what kind of story Crick is living.
Stranger Than Fiction is probably best described as a book on film. In books, I find that I often have to live with the characters for a bit here and there, reading about mundane things that don’t necessarily have a point, if only to bring the characters more to life. The same can be said of the characters here. If you open yourself up to simply watching these characters live, there is a wonderful story to be had. I just wish the story came sooner.