Tragedy and comedy collide in Stranger than Fiction

by Glen Baity

One of the most astute observations I’ve encountered in recent years, which I’ve gone on to reference in at least a thousand late-night conversations, came from a graphic novel called Goldfish.

In it, a main character undergoing interrogation for the murder of his lover asserts that the world is often a miserable place due to one simple fact: Everyone behaves as if their life is like a movie, and theirs is the name on the marquee.

What nobody realizes, this character said, is that everyone imagines himself this way. No one thinks of himself as a supporting character in another person’s epic story.

Maybe you agree with that idea, and maybe you don’t. Perhaps it’s because I do that I found Harold Crick so interesting.

The unlikely hero of director Marc Forster’s latest film, Harold (Will Ferrell) crunches numbers and causes headaches for a living as an IRS auditor in Stranger than Fiction. He copes well enough with the fact that he is universally loathed, but he seems to have done so by eliminating any hint of extremity from his life. He has no interests or hobbies. His only “friends” are work-related acquaintances. His apartment has no decorations to speak of, no pictures of loved ones and nothing at all out of its prescribed place. Every day of his life is planned down to the nanosecond, which has the effect of making every day a virtual carbon copy of the one that preceded it. He seems neither happy nor depressed about this fact.

And so it is that the only man in the world who doesn’t see himself as a tragic hero finds himself cast in exactly that role. One day, quite out of the blue, Harold begins hearing the voice of a British woman in his head, narrating his every move and articulating his every thought.

Soon enough, he finds that that voice belongs to famed author and half-mad recluse Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson). Harold, we learn, is nothing more than a character in her latest book. His life is a product of her imagination, which is almost as upsetting as the fact that the only thing standing in the way of his looming death is a nasty case of writer’s block.

Harold, aided by English professor Dr. Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman, unwisely recreating his character from I Heart Huckabees), takes stock of his life to determine the most pressing question: Is this story a comedy or a tragedy?

The film, consequently, doesn’t reveal that answer until the very end, but the deciding factor is simple: either Harold dies (tragedy) or he doesn’t (comedy).

Thrown into the mix is a new love interest in the form of belligerent Socialist Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), owner and operator of The Uprising Bakery, with whom square peg Harold falls madly in love in the course of a routine audit.

Stranger than Fiction is a post-modern mindbender that owes more than a little to Charlie Kaufman, the perpetually ahead-of-his-time screenwriter behind gems like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Like both of those films, Stranger than Fiction is obsessively self-aware and quirky to the nth degree, though amazingly, neither of those traits distract from its engaging story.

That’s fortunate: In my mind, the only thing worse than watching a derivative movie is watching a derivative movie that thinks it’s being clever and unique (see the aforementioned Huckabees. Or don’t). The great thing about this film is that it doesn’t get caught up in its fantastic elements, which are problematic from the get-go: If Harold is a fictional character, is everyone with whom he interacts fictional as well? Where does the fiction end and reality begin? How much control, if any, does Karen exert over what happens in Harold’s world? And so forth.

Instead, the film hones in on what turns out to be a wonderful love story between polar opposites Harold and Ana. Ferrell and Gyllenhaal, in one of the year’s biggest surprises, have great romantic chemistry together, and the arc of their relationship provides a sweet and believable center in a film that turns on the unbelievable. Ferrell in particular does a tremendous job showing himself as a dramatic actor, delivering a warm, sympathetic performance that displays a heretofore unseen depth.

The struggle between authors and their creations has become its own cliché in modern literature – Stephen King, to name just one example, covered it in his short story “Umney’s Last Case” a few years back, and if you’ve ever taken a sophomore-level English course, you could probably name several others. That doesn’t make Stranger than Fiction a bad film – screenwriter Zach Helm’s debut script is too good for that. And for all its cliched underpinnings, it poses interesting questions about how we define comedy and tragedy, and the parts of our lives that, cumulatively, suggest the whole as one or the other.

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