“This may sound like complete gibberish to you, but I think I’m in a tragedy.”
2007 has a lot of work to do if it wants to equal the brilliance set by Stranger than Fiction. This early in the year you’re mainly dealing with refugees from 2006, and this would have been an awesome way to cap off that year. Instead, I’m left with something that kicks off the second month of 2007 with style, flair and meaning.
Stranger than Fiction is a different movie, particularly to those used to attending Will Ferrell’s standard fare. I have held firm to the belief that Ferrell can be good in a good film, and this is proof: he is great in a great film, and utterly believable. When he cried, I damn near cried along with him.
I did cry later though, for real.
It’s a terrible cliché, and one that I indulge in a lot, to say that any given movie feels as if it were made for me. But Stranger than Fiction, with its combination of finding one’s soul and a certain level of literature, was made for me. A personally tailored film being played on a wide release basis is naturally not going to find proponents all over the place but, if it manages to snag at least a few people and forces them to reconsider their lives, it’s all worth it.
Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is an intensely boring man. For twelve years, he follows exactly the same routine until, one Wednesday, he hears a voice narrating his life. After the initial shock wears off, Harold is disturbed to hear the voice saying “Little did he know that this course of action would lead to his imminent death”.
Harold consults a literary professor (Dustin Hoffman) so that he may identify the narrator, but until that proves fruitful he is advised to live his life to the full. If that means falling for socialist baker Ana Pascale (Maggie Gyllenhaal), then so be it.
Stranger than Fiction is the sort of movie that you can give away too much of. It’s such a perfectly wrapped package of semi-literature and humanity that it would be a shame to ever do such a thing. All of the performances by the main characters are superlative, and Ferrell is as he’s never appeared before. It’s unfortunate that he’s allowed himself to be typecast because he can be excellent if he’s given the right script. I don’t think that he’s inherently funny – it would be easy to say that he was the worst thing about Wedding Crashers, but let’s be honest: everything about that movie was the worst thing about that movie – but he is a surprisingly accomplished actor.
The second half of the movie is so good that it’s easy to forget the excellence of the first half. I went and saw it a second time a mere two days after my first, and I realised that, while the ending is super awesome, the movie is really a uniform effort of wonder. Ferrell brings a real pathos to the character of Harold Crick; the scene directly after he hears the narrator’s intent is one that is ostensibly played for laughs but is in reality characterised by an intense desperation. Ferrell can actually communicate what Harold is supposed to be feeling, and it is upon him that a lot of this movie floats.
This is not a one man show: rotoscopy and interesting cinematography that makes scenes by turns dynamic, lonely and barren, and warm play an important part, particularly when Harold catches the bus … but an ensemble of characters nearly as good as Crick himself also allow the movie to shine.
Dustin Hoffman is singularly hilarious as Professor Herbert (“I’ve just categorically ruled out the possibility that you’re a golem. Aren’t you glad you’re not a golem?”); Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Ana Pascale is a woman worth living for; and Emma Thompson’s not so mysterious narrator Karen Eiffel (we know who she is almost from the start, after all) is glorious as an author whose body of work has subconsciously crushed her spirit and zest for life.
The soundtrack is likewise magnificent, largely in that Will Ferrell gets to play a guitar and crank out “Whole wide world”, but also because it builds up to create what is, for me, one of the greatest penultimate scenes in cinema. I knew it was coming the second time I saw it
Of course, I’m ignoring the story itself, which is pure “Hey Alex! Let me stab you in the brain with cooltacularitysomeness!”*.
There is, of course, the whole literary angle, which is not too difficult but just intellectual enough. The format tantalises and amuses, with references to the rules of stories and the deep dissatisfaction of a cop out. Yet a narrative is not real life: should Harold Crick die because it would make a good story, or should he live on boringly because he’s a real man?
The question of the story is that if you have the power to take a life, should you? The film becomes a thriller, my heart pumping the first time I saw it, and then it became a beautifully executed piece of art. All the way through, the audience is engaged, but never more than in the final act: the act of decision, stoicism and inevitability. It’s a great movie, which ends in the only way it possibly could. Still, until that moment, you’ll be left guessing. A one-solution puzzle that looks like it could have multiple possibilities is the truest illusion of reality in a film.
So, because I didn’t want to make Stranger than Fiction a cohesive whole, I’ve presented you its parts, like an incomplete puzzle. Maybe it doesn’t make for good reading, but hopefully it’s enough to compel you to go and check it out. A movie that makes you realise that life is there for living, not necessarily for audits, and that quality of life and the quality of pancakes is inextricably linked, is a movie well worth treasuring.
*This sentence has singlewordedly ruined my chances of ever being a credible film critic.