Stranger than Fiction

Will Ferrell in Stranger than Fiction (dir. Marc Forster, 2006).

Stranger than Fiction rides on a promising conceit: IRS auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) wakes up one morning and can hear voiceover narration of his life. Before long the voice reveals that the "character's" death is imminent. What to do? Initiate a romance with auditee Maggie Gyllenhaal, for one. For another, when seeing a psychiatrist (a wonderfully deadpan Linda Hunt) doesn't pan out, go see literary critic Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman). That joke alone is inspired enough that you would think it could carry the film, and in part it does. When Hilbert sits down and administers a quiz based on structuralist principles in order to find out what kind of story Crick is in, it's great fun. Ferrell's understatedness is a little depressing, in that it probably heralds a long line of "mature" roles to come, but his performance is well-executed as far as it goes, and he does manage to get in some amusing flourishes.

The whole thing starts to unravel, however, when the narrator (Emma Thompson) manifests as a physical character, Kay Eiffel. From that point on it's inevitable that what started as an appealingly absurdist comedy will devolve into one of those metaphysical heartwarmers. As long as the voiceover remains disembodied, it provides the basis for all kinds of engaging comic and metatextual business. Unfortunately, screenwriter Zach Helm seems more interested in the latter kind of business than the former, which ends up meaning that he doesn't manage to deliver fully on either. Things fall apart entirely the moment Crick and Eiffel make actual contact with each other: you can almost hear the sound of narrative tension evaporating, and you know that from that point on all you're going to have is "drama."

Harold Ramis' Groundhog Day (1993) had a similarly fanciful premise: Phil Connors (Bill Murray) wakes up every morning and lives the same day over again. That is, he can change what happens to himself and others within the space of that twenty-four hours, but every time his alarm clock goes off, it returns him to the morning of February 2nd. Thus all the gains, advances, and breakthroughs he makes in his waking life serve only to make him better at living that one day. They have no effect on the rest of his life. Until the end, in fact, it would appear that there no longer is a "rest of his life." Groundhog Day is by far the more satisfying film, in part because the mechanism behind the strange forces that keep Connors trapped in time is never exposed or explained.* This means that the existential loop he performs is left free to function as a metaphor for any number of things, and we can give our undivided attention to how Connors deals with it. By revealing Eiffel as the author of Crick's life, in contrast, Stranger than Fiction commits itself to articulating the ethical and emotional responsibilities each character has in regard to the other. It's no surprise that it fails. What would be interesting is if Crick tried to manipulate the voiceover by undermining narrative prompts and so forth. (He makes some half-hearted gestures in this direction early in the film, but they go nowhere.) For example--and this will only make sense if you've seen the film--I was rooting for him to go back and select one of the guitars in the picture above rather than the one he ends up choosing a few frames later. What pleasure there is in the story lies in watching Crick resist his textual destiny through his own ingenuity and determination. As it turns out, the only thing there eventually is for him to do is appeal to the author's conscience. Anyone in suspense as to how that turns out?

See also Jane Dark's review....

And Kevin Killian's Amazon commentary.

* Although I must admit that I find the one flaw in this otherwise brilliant film to be the somewhat arbitrary cessation of Connors' curse at film's end. What, he finally manages to break out of the loop simply by becoming talented, charming, and generous enough? I always thought it would have been a better ending if Connors and Rita (Andie McDowell) wake up together on February 2nd instead of February 3rd. Just as arbitrary, perhaps, and a little illogical, but a nice twist.