It’s been a long year, friends. We are near its conclusion and we all hope you’re staying sane, safe and well out there. To even the most casual Midwest Film Journal reader, it will be no surprise that we love puns around here almost as much as we love thoughtful, entertaining criticism and monthlong series that can highlight some of our favorite creators and creations. We thank you for another great year with us here at MFJ. So in that spirit that we hope makes you smile, our December ode to one of our favorite sibling duos: Deck the Gyllenhaals.
Stranger Than Fiction (2006) is an American fantasy comedy-drama, directed by Marc Forster and written by Zach Helm. The story centers on a rather boring numbers- and time-obsessed “everyman” who begins hearing a disembodied voice narrating his life as the text of a novel, presumably as it’s being written. (No one else can hear the voice, of course.)
I find the script predictable and rather uninterestingly bizarre, but apparently the critics liked it. The movie was released by Columbia Pictures on November 10, 2006, and it received positive reviews for its themes, humor, and performances. Hm, well, OK. The themes might be somewhat intriguing, but the actual script is just too predictable and pretentious, the humor for the most part comes from only one character (probably not the one you expect), and the performances don’t (can’t?) rise above the script.
Will Ferrell is protagonist Harold Crick, Maggie Gyllenhaal is his love interest, Ana Pascal, Emma Thompson is the Narrator/Karen Eiffel, Queen Latifah is Penny Escher, and Dustin Hoffman is Professor Jules Hilbert. Helm named each characters after well-known scientists or scientifically influential artists (Crick, Pascal, Eiffel, Escher, and Hilbert). In further homage, Helm gives a nod to German mathematician Hilbert’s famous 23 mathematical problems, known as Hilbert’s Problems, when the film’s Hilbert devises 23 questions to investigate the Narrator.
The film’s title is taken from a Lord Byron quote: “Tis strange — but true; for truth is always strange, stranger than fiction.” Here’s a truth that some of you might find strange: this film could be cast with any actors of similar ages and talents and it would still be pretentious and predictable because a not-great script usually yields a not-great movie, no matter who’s in it.
This movie was Ferrell’s first starring dramatic role; he received positive reviews for his restrained portrayal of Harold. I don’t really agree with those reviews because it isn’t so much a “restrained” performance as it is a Botox-like version of Ferrell’s usual onscreen (alleged) “acting.” Full disclosure, in case you haven’t guessed: I’m not a fan of Ferrell in anything, ever. He does nothing in this film to change my opinion of him; in fact, I think less of him as an actor, if that’s possible, after watching the movie. Ferrell just can’t transform. A good actor dissolves away so that what we see onscreen is the character being played. Ferrell has never achieved that level of acting and, given that this movie was his tailor-made chance to not just do what he always does, I don’t think he ever will. Not that the part of Harold Crick is anything to write home about; it’s a variation on the stereotypical “uncool guy.” His clothes are bland-blah uncool, his apartment is bland-blah uncool, his job is bland-blah uncool, and so on. When Harold ditches all that bland-blah uncool stuff to “live life to the fullest,” it’s in very predictably “cool” ways. As for the other main male actor, well, I can barely tolerate Hoffman in general, although in this film he’s not completely annoying.
Emma Thompson’s usually pretty good, so I’ve watch most of her movies; she’s good in this one, and it is her character that offers most of the humor in this film. The main reason I watched this film is because I’m such a BIG fan of both Maggie Gyllenhaal and Queen Latifah. I usually wish Queen Latifah was in more scenes in every movie I see her in, and in this film I wish she’d been cast as Eiffel (Thompson’s role), but oh well. It’s another movie that underuses the talents of Queen Latifah. As for Maggie Gyllenhaal ~ well, she just keeps getting better and better, in my opinion. This film isn’t one of her best vehicles, but that’s not really her fault: she’s does more than most could with what she was given by the writers. Her character is basically a variation of the “artsy cool girl” ~ she’s got cool artsy tattoos, she’s wears cool artsy clothes, her apartment is full of warmly-colored cool artsy knickknacks and décor, her job as baker of cool artsy desserts is cool and artsy, and so on.
To be fair to the cast, the script doesn’t give them much. It is, at worst, pretentious, and, at best, “cute.” The aforementioned Narrator, who imbues Harold’s wristwatch with some sentient powers of human-like thoughts, desires, and self-directed action, states that Harold will “imminently die,” which will be the end of the story / novel. That’s the premise upon which the rest of the film relies, switching back and forth between Harold and an author named Karen Eiffel (Thompson).
Harold works as a senior Internal Revenue Service agent; he is likely “on” some spectrum regarding numbers. He calculates the sums of complex equations easily and quickly in his head, counting the movements of his toothbrushing, counting and walking the same number of steps to and from the bus he takes to work every day, going to bed at the exact same time every night, and so on. Harold is a solitary man, with no life outside of work. We are told that his numbers- and time-focused life has been the same every day for 12 years, and that he maintains his rigid daily schedule via his wristwatch — that is, until one particular Wednesday, when, while routinely brushing his teeth, he hears the Narrator’s voice.
That morning at the bus stop, Harold’s watch stops working. In the Narrator’s voice, this mis-action by the watch is purposeful: it is the watch’s (failed) attempt at getting Harold’s attention. As Harold obliviously resets his watch, having asked a bystander for the correct time, he hears the Narrator say the action of resetting the watch will result in Harold’s imminent death. This news upsets Harold greatly, and he starts to wonder if he can change his fate. At work that same day, he tells his co-worker Dave about the voice. Dave thinks Harold is overworked and gives him an “easy” new audit, that of an intentionally tax-delinquent baker named Ana Pascal (Gyllenhaal).
The Narrator continues to plague Harold, sporadically narrating moments in his life, most disturbingly as he meets Ana. The Narrator describes Harold’s immediate physical attraction to Ana, who (of course) takes an instant and loud dislike to Harold. Because of the narration and his own attraction, Harold has trouble focusing on the audit job at hand and the script gives us an obligatory “stares at boobs” scene.
Dave reports Harold’s strange behavior to Human Resources, and the Human Resources guy suggests Harold take some time off, but Harold says he’s fine. Privately, he decides to consult a psychiatrist, who tells him he’s schizophrenic. Because Harold believes his life has somehow become entwined with the real-life writing of a novel in progress somewhere, he rejects the diagnosis. Ultimately, the psychiatrist gives up trying to convince Harold he’s mentally ill, and, allowing that the “problem” is a literature-based one, refers him to Hilbert (Hoffman), a literature professor who likes to rewatch recorded TV interviews of his favorite authors. Hilbert becomes intrigued by the fact that the voice Harold claims to hear is a narrative literary device known as “third-person omniscient.” They meet several times at Hilbert’s office (in scenes with no TV playing in the background), and, using literary theory, Hilbert helps Harold work through several exercises in an attempt to learn more about the Narrator and determine if the novel, aka Harold’s story, is a comedy or tragedy.
Yes, the only two options, apparently, are comedy or tragedy. That’s pretty much where the story falls apart for me, by the way, because of that either/or premise, which I reject. I believe that life and literature — at least, good literature — are far more complex than the confines of those two ancient literary genres. It is never explained well in the film, but the origins of the two literary genres come from ancient Greece, when “comedy” basically meant a story with a happy ending and “tragedy” basically meant a story with an unhappy ending. The film’s script is founded on those ancient definitions, so perhaps Helm should’ve better emphasized them to his modern audience. I imagine theatre audiences thought this movie was going to meet the modern definitions of “comedy,” especially since Ferrell was cast as the lead and so many people see him as funny. Their expectation of “Ferrell = funny” must’ve caused some disappointment.
I should interject here that the funniest and best parts of the film are usually “within” the action of the other main character, author Karen Eiffel (Thompson). Thompson has great chemistry with the underused Latifah, who plays Penny, an assistant Eiffel’s publisher has forced upon her to help her finish her novel. Notable are Eiffel’s “imagined scenes” of her own death and humorous scenes where she’s “investigating” illnesses and deaths, all as research for how to kill off her protagonist. Thompson is good as Eiffel, but again, I wish they’d given that part to Queen Latifah.
As Harold continues to audit Ana’s bakery business, he becomes more and more attracted to her. When she begins to like him and offers him a gift (cookies), he rejects it because it could be considered a bribe. Harold believes his self-destructive rejection of her kindness / gift mean his “story” is a tragedy; one of Hilbert’s exercises is to keep track of “comedy” and “tragedy” elements regarding Harold’s attraction to Ana. Harold’s interpretation of his life story’s genre seems confirmed after Hilbert advises Harold to spend a day at home “doing nothing” — whilst he is doing nothing, Harold’s living room is destroyed by a demolition crew’s wrecking ball (the crew has the wrong address). Hilbert tells Harold that’s proof enough that he’s not in control of his destiny and tells Harold to accept whatever “fate” the Narrator has decided on by just enjoying the time he has left.
I gotta pause my own narration and say again that Hilbert’s character is written poorly. But for the most part, Hoffman does a pretty good job with what he is given. Still, so much of the film’s action rests on Hilbert’s “advice” to Harold, and that “advice” is just goofy.
Harold — clearly disagreeing with my film-viewing narrator’s assessment of Hilbert’s advice — does indeed take time off work and stops “doing” everything in his usual numbers- and time-focused routine. He also takes up long-desired guitar lessons, moves in with his co-worker Dave and they become actual friends. They tell each other their unfulfilled dreams: Harold’s is learning to play guitar and Dave’s is going to Space Camp. Harold also starts seriously dating Ana. He believes Ana loves him, so he re-evaluates his “story” as a comedy. Again, know your ancient definitions, people!
Harold meets again with Hilbert to tell him that his “story” is now a comedy rather than a tragedy. He hopes Hilbert will assure him that the Narrator will now change the story’s ending so that Harold won’t “imminently die.” This time, in Hilbert’s office, the TV is playing a recorded interview show; it’s an old interview with Karen Eiffel. Remember my mentioning Hilbert as someone “who likes to rewatch recorded TV interviews of his favorite authors”? The TV recordings stuff was so annoyingly: I knew in the first Hilbert scene that the TV stuff was going to be how Harold’s “finds” the Narrator, didn’t you?? How else could Harold possibly “find” his Narrator amongst the kajillions of authors’ “voices” out there in the world, right?? So, yes, in this scene Harold recognizes Eiffel’s voice as his Narrator, and because Eiffel reveals in the interview that the name of her protagonist is Harold Crick, Harold knows that she is definitely writing “his” story. Hilbert tells Harold that’s not good, because all of Eiffel’s books end with the protagonist dying. Harold decides he must find Eiffel and convince her not to kill off “her” Harold Crick.
The audience has seen Eiffel struggling with writer’s block for quite a while, unsure how to kill off her protagonist. With Penny by her side, Eiffel researches different ways to kill Harold, even considering death scenes in which she imagines herself as the one who dies. It is during a mundane moment in Eiffel’s life that she has an epiphany and settles on a cause of death for her Harold.
Meanwhile, Harold tracks down Eiffel. He calls her as she is typing the words “the phone rang” three times and her real phone rings each time; on the third call, she frantically answers. Harold tells her his name; she invites him to come over; he does. She is completely stunned to realize that he is her character “come to life” — Harold looks exactly as she has written him. He asks her to stop before she kills him, but she tells him that although she hasn’t finished typing the story, she has handwritten an outline of its ending. Penny recommends she let Harold read the manuscript, including the handwritten ending. He’s afraid to read it so he gives it to Hilbert, who reads it and tells Harold it is Eiffel’s masterpiece and the ending mustn’t be changed. He consoles Harold that all death is inevitable, but that Harold’s death, as Eiffel has written it, will have meaning. Harold doesn’t want to believe that, so he decides to read it while he’s on the bus, staying aboard for hours until he’s done with the manuscript. When he’s finished, he returns the manuscript to Eiffel, telling her that he accepts the death she has written for him.
I need to say here that the audience has long before now figured out the cause of death because the script inserts throughout the film some otherwise unconnected-to-the-story scenes of a young boy riding his bicycle, and a woman newly hired as a bus driver. It would have been a better film had the writer not forced us to “see” the setup of Harold’s imminent and meaningful death.
Harold prepares for death by finishing his outstanding audits, telling Ana to write off her baked-good giveaways because the value of them exceeds what she owes in unpaid taxes, and arranging for his friend Dave to attend Space Camp. Harold contentedly spends his last night with Ana. The next morning, he returns to his numbers- and time-obsessed routine again; he hears the Narrator narrating his every move, so he knows Eiffel is typing.
The Narrator reveals that, when Harold reset his wristwatch, the time given by the bystander was three minutes fast, which now causes Harold to arrive to his bus stop earlier than usual. Bad time-focused scriptwriting note: nowhere before this moment does that four-day-old three-minute error in time matter one little bit. As Harold waits at the bus stop, the aforementioned boy riding his bicycle spontaneously wrecks it in the street right in front of the bus stop. Harold runs out into the street, pushes the boy to safety, and is hit by an oncoming bus driven by the aforementioned woman newly hired as a bus driver. We see Harold’s twisted body, apparently lifeless in the street. Then we see Eiffel rage-weeping at her typewriter, and we see the page in the typewriter: she had stopped typing before finishing the sentence that says Harold is dead.
The next scene is of Harold waking up in a hospital, grievously injured, but alive. His head is bandaged, and most of his body, arms, and one leg are in casts. A doctor tells him that the boy is unhurt, then lists all of Harold’s injuries and says that Harold’s life was saved by his wristwatch, which was destroyed by the impact of the bus; a shard of the watch “lodged near” his ulnar artery and kept the artery from bleeding out, thus giving doctors time to save Harold’s life. It’s a medical miracle. Okaaaay. Continuing the ridiculous “medical miracle” stuff, the doctor tells Harold surgeons had to leave the watch shard in his arm because it was “too dangerous” to remove it. So, predictably, the sentient human-esque wristwatch that previously guided Harold’s numbers- and time-obsessed life, has sacrificed itself to save him and is now a physical part of Harold’s body.
In the final scenes, Eiffel goes to Hilbert’s office and offers him the chance to read her revised ending. Hilbert does, then tells her it is “good” but no longer great literature because the story is weaker without Harold’s death (i.e., “tragedy” is better literature than “comedy”). He also says the ending doesn’t match the rest of the story anymore. Eiffel agrees with his critique, adding that she’s planning to rewrite the rest of the novel to match the new ending. She tells Hilbert that the book was about a man dying unexpectedly who did not know he was going to die but now is about a man who knows and accepts that he’s going to die to save someone else, and she believes that makes her protagonist the kind of person who deserves to live. Then we see a montage of Harold’s new and happy life, detailed by Eiffel’s narration, and the film ends with a shot of the crushed wristwatch.
I had the word “predictably” in almost every sentence of the above plot review; I took them out in the hope that everyone can see that flaw without me shoving it in their faces. The final two critiques I have of this not great film are that 1) it is unremarkable, despite good but not great performances by Gyllenhaal, Hoffman, Latifah, and Thompson, and 2) despite its time-focused theme, this movie is, ironically, unmemorable.