November 13, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

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First question: is Stranger Than Fiction a comedy? I thought it would be going into it, but then doubts were raised, primarily when my friends told me, “It’s not a comedy.” But they hadn’t actually seen the movie, so I withheld judgment. However, one thing I am sure of: Stranger than Fiction is not a documentary. No matter the title, it is, in fact, fiction.

Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is a novelist writing a book, or at least trying to write one. Her novel is about an IRS agent named Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), who is a man of precision and who leads what may be charitably termed a boring life. And he is going to die. But Eiffel has writer’s block and is unable to figure out the proper way to kill him off.

So Penny Escher (Queen Latifah), a publishing assistant (or something to this effect), is brought in to help her finish the book. However, it just so happens that Harold is actually a real person and anything she writes, he thinks or does, whilst hearing Eiffel’s voice as narration. So while she thinks she is writing a novel, she in fact writing something more along the lines of a real-time biography.

Harold Crick is not accustomed to this sort of internal narrative, which is reasonable, but he is not entirely sure how to handle it. And just when Harold discovers that something strange is going on with him, his life begins to pick up. Harold meets Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a dessert chef and a socialist hippie type (an Ithacan perhaps?). However, he meets her in the context of auditing her, so not all is well from the start.

Much of the movie then revolves around Harold trying to determine what is going on, all the while Eiffel attempts to write her book. Dustin Hoffman also appears, as the literature professor Jules Hilbert, who attempts to help Harold piece together what is going on with him and acts as a sort of guide for Harold. Hoffman brings just the right amount of eccentricity to his role.

So I still think this movie is a comedy. But it is certainly not a joke-a-minute one, or in the same style as other Will Ferrell vehicles. In this movie, Ferrell is funny, but also poignant, without any of his usual meshugaas.

Maybe one way to describe it (while in no way equating the quality of the movies) would be through film analogy. Stranger Than Fiction is similar to Crimes and Misdemeanors — the Woody Allen movie — in that while it is billed as a comedy, there are definitely some serious issues being discussed. In Crimes and Misdemeanors you have death, God and meaning and purpose in life, and in Stranger Than Fiction, I think you mainly have death (and maybe a bit of purpose or free will sprinkled in there).

The movie is generally cute and clever, but if you are so inclined, you can conceive it as slightly thought-provoking. For instance, if Ms. Eiffel is writing the story of Harold’s life, what is the nature of causation for him? Is he just a puppet on a string? He feels as if he has free will, but what of it? Furthermore, the movie itself is about a book about a man’s life, but also about the man’s life itself. Which is more real, the book or the man?

And while we know that novels are not about real people, if we had all possible books (infinitely many), this would mean that every single person who has ever lived has had the story of their life written down (and in fact, has had it written in an infinite number of different styles, from Faulkner and Borges to the Archie comics version). Nonetheless, does this mean that these books should not be written, since someone’s life is, trivially, at stake? It is at this point that one might realize that I have thought too much about the movie.

So Stranger Than Fiction is enjoyable and can be thought-provoking, but is ultimately just fun mixed with a little bit of poignancy. Whether you get something out of the movie or not, I can say one thing for sure: nice job becoming a bit more versatile, Mr. Ferrell.