Have you ever felt like someone was constantly watching you? The idea that there is some larger being monitoring our every moves is either a frightening thought (Big Brother) or a comforting one (God). Stranger Than Fiction is the story of an ordinary Chicago IRS agent, Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) whose monotonous life is disrupted one day by a omniscient voice describing his day-to-day actions. Harold is understandably distressed, and is thrown into a panic when the voice also informs him that he will have to die. He learns, by chance, that the British-accented narrator of his life is esteemed author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a famed writer who is struggling with crippling writer’s block. Harold seeks the aide of an eccentric literary scholar (Dustin Hoffman), to figure out if he can escape his doomed fate. While Harold is fighting in this strange battle for his life, he is also catching the eye of a radical baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) whom he is auditing. Karen is also waging her own conflict with herself, and is seeking the aide of a prolific writer’s assistant, Penny Escher (Queen Latifah), who boasts that she never fails to deliver a manuscript.
The concept of a man having his life narrarated by an author may seem like a lot to take in, and initially the idea comes off as a bit cutesy. However, the script is so well-written and the cast is up to the task of making this difficult subject ring true. While this film is a comedy, it’s not a knee-slapping laugh-fest — instead, it’s a thoughtful, smaller film that deals with various emotional issues — namely, appreciating life and making sure one never takes it for granted. Harold, in his quest to save his life, finally begins to live it, breaking free from the comfortable monotony that he was stuck in.
Though she is a supporting character, Karen Eiffel’s struggle for creativity is also important. She feels addled by a pressure to produce great art, and she feels tapped out. Like Harold, she doesn’t fully appreciate her life, either; instead of hiding in a series of routines, she wraps her meaning in her work, therefore risking her self-identity if she cannot produce something worthwhile.
Harold and Karen do confront each other, though I cannot go into the details, without giving away the film. It’s important to note, however, that the screenwriters find great nobility in Harold’s everyman. He manages to look outside his world of ritual and conformity, and see the “bigger picture,” and acts accordingly. It’s a wonderful moment in the film, and the outcome is equally satisfying.
Will Ferrell is excellent as Harold. He scores comic points with his timing, but also shows surprising depth. He has done personable work in film such as Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda and Adam Rapp’s Winter Passing, though nothing he’s done matches his work here. Thompson is even better as the embattled author, giving the unappealing character the right amount of pathos and sympathy. Hoffman is predictably solid, even if his performance seems an extension of his stronger work in I “Heart” Huckabees. Gyllenhaal shines as the love interest, and though her part is woefully underwritten, a no-nonsense Queen Latifah steals her scenes with her genial film presence.
Films like Stranger Than Fiction cannot compete with easier popcorn fare (like the vast bulk of Ferrell’s resume), though it would be a mistake to label it an “art house film.” It’s still very mainstream, despite the strange conceit of having Thompson narrarate Ferrell’s life. It’s quirky and extremely moving (especially toward the ending), and the film ultimately celebrates humanity and friendship with sincere emotion and not cheap schmaltz.