Writers of fiction create people—that’s what they do. And sometimes, for the sake of the plot, they kill them off. Does that make the author a murderer? Of course not, we say. But suppose, just for the sake of argument, that the fictional character was real. Now, does the writer still have the right to kill him off? Perhaps a strange question, yet that is the premise of the new film “Stranger Than Fiction” starring Will Ferrell and Emma Thompson.
The movie starts off ordinarily enough watching Harold Crick (Ferrell) go about his daily routine, from brushing his teeth to going to his by-the-numbers job as an auditor for the IRS. A voice-over (Thompson) narrates his actions and fills us in on his background. But very quickly things take a strange turn when Harold starts to hear Thompson narrating his life. Is he crazy for hearing voices in his head, or is he a character in Emma Thompson’s book? This is all difficult enough until he hears the voice say, “Little did he know…” that his death was imminent. Fortunately, this is a comedy and the light-hearted tone keeps us from getting too freaked out; still it’s a disturbing development.
I’d like to say that the film continues with its cleverness, exploring the role characters play as part of their own stories, and the relationship between authors and their characters, in the way great films like “Adaptation” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo” do. Unfortunately “Stranger Than Fiction” never really goes too much beyond its initial premise. That’s not to say that it isn’t entertaining, enjoyable, funny, and even sad at parts. But when the writer and the character eventually do meet and they face the moral conundrum—is it worth it for a man to be killed for the sake of literature—it just doesn’t go that deep. It is also disappointing that the interesting premise is never really explained. How can a fictional character be a real person and hear the author? You just have to somehow accept it, or the movie falls apart.
Despite its imperfections, there is some enjoyable and good acting. Emma Thompson, of course, is always wonderful and hardly needs extra praise from me. The pleasant surprise, though, is Will Ferrell who actually creates a sympathetic and serious character while still maintaining a comic lightness. It’s really nice to see compared to the silly clown he usually plays.
Also of particular note is Maggie Gyllenhaal who plays Ferrell’s love interest. She’s an anti-authoritarian anarchist baker who is audited because she has withheld the percentage of her income tax which would have gone to defense spending. Yet the fringe character she created is able to see through all the politics and bureaucracy to the humanity of Ferrell’s character and reveal her own humanity as well, without giving up her political convictions. (On a personal note, I was very pleased to see, prominently displayed on her bakery wall, a poster for Food Not Bombs, a homeless advocate group of which a very dear friend is an active member.)
The one big acting disappointment was Dustin Hoffman who played a contemporary literature professor who tries to help Ferrell’s character figure out what writer is inside his head. Not that there’s anything wrong or false about his performance, but it just doesn’t measure up the many amazing roles he’s created in his distinguished career.
And actually, I guess I could say the same thing for the film, overall. That is, it’s a disappointment. The premise had promised to offer something new, exciting, and stranger than the usual fiction. But on that, it failed to deliver. There were too many unanswered questions and too many interesting places it could have gone which it didn’t. It’s always a shame when something doesn’t live up to its potential.
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