Stranger Than Fiction
In 1921, Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello premiered his most famous play, "Six Characters in Search of an Author." In it, the audience watches what appears to be the dress rehearsal for a play only to be interrupted by the arrival of six characters who insist on being given life and the opportunity to tell their story.
When the characters are rebuffed as madmen, they reply that life is full of absurdities that do not need to appear plausible since they are already true. "[T]o create credible situations, in order that they may appear true" is acting, they retort, and therefore, the true madness.
There is more than a little bit of Pirandello in Marc Forster's new film, Stranger Than Fiction.
Harold Crick (SNL alum Will Ferrell in a Jim Carrey-esque, quasi-serious role) is the sort of man no one ever notices. He lives alone. He works alone. He takes lunch alone. And, of course, he sleeps alone. An IRS agent who actually enjoys his job and spends his free time counting everything around him, including his precise number of toothbrush strokes each and very morning, Harold is someone in desperate need of what we might gently call, "a life."
But "a life" is exactly what Harold is in jeopardy of losing when he begins hearing a voice that seems to narrate, in the omniscient third-person, his every move. At first simply exasperating, it becomes a matter of life and death to discover just who and what the voice is, after it offhandedly pronounces one afternoon that Harold Crick is soon to die. While therapists dismiss his claims as schizophrenia, Harold finds support in English Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) who sets about trying to find an explanation to Harold's mysterious narrator in the realm of literature. (The resulting scenes are an English major's playground of delight.)
Meanwhile, a funny thing begins to happen. The more Harold muses on his imminent death, the more he begins to crawl out of his well-ordered and straight-laced shell and truly discover what it means to be alive. This includes finding love for the first time with sassy, precocious baker, Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), whom he was in the middle of auditing for tax fraud. Suddenly Harold has something to live for.
And in the midst of it all, weary, chain-smoking author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is only pages away from completing not only her first novel in a decade but what may very well be her greatest masterpiece. That is, if she can figure out a way to kill her protagonist, Harold Crick, who, as we've already established, does not, in fact, care to die.
Marc Forster is one of Hollywood's more deliciously unpredictable directors. He's been on the radar screen ever since his difficult Monster's Ball won Halle Berry an Academy Award as the lover of racist prison guard. His next film, the whimsical Johnny Depp vehicle, Finding Neverland, about J.M. Barrie of "Peter Pan" fame, was nominated for Best Picture. After a critical hiccup with the physiological thriller, Stay, Forster here returns in fine form with a film that injects far more substance and far more heart than the comedic trailers, as usual, reveal.
Stranger Than Fiction is not a fluff film. Far from it. Literate and engaging, it may parade around in nonsensical clothes, but just scratch the surface and a vast reservoir of post-modern existentialism is revealed.
How much of our lives to do we actually control and how much is already decided for us? Is control an illusion we've fooled ourselves into believing we all possess? In a sort of cinematic Calvinism, the film asks whether we are the masters of our own destinies or whether an omniscient and unmovable fate guides our path. More important still, are we able to bend the ear of fate and does it have our best interests at heart?
With a strong eye for details (seen nowhere better than in the film's multiple graphic sequences that spatially overlay Harold's obsessive calculations atop the images) -- both visual and physiological -- Forster has crafted more of a fable than a film, an unhurried, whimsical, uncommonly intelligent tale about romance, the self-made man, and what it truly means to be human.
More than that, it confronts the responsibilities of art. When author Eiffel discovers the truth of her situation -- that to finish her novel would mean the death of a flesh and blood man -- she is faced with the choice of finally writing an acclaimed masterpiece or saving the life of a hum-drum everyman barely anyone would miss anyway.
Her decision, dear readers, I leave for you to discover. If the end of the film is a sort of compromise, don't blame the filmmaker, blame the characters. After all, they are the ones in control.
P.S.: Am I the only one who thinks the Sonic guys are hilarious? Apparently not. Forster casts both as Crick's fellow IRS agents. Yes, validation is mine!