What would it be like if your life was the subject of a novel being written, and you could hear every word as it was being typed? Government taxman Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) wakes up one day to exactly that: an all-knowing narrator perfectly describing his actions to only him. It is not got the most interesting tale to tell — he is single, has few friends and does the same things at the same time everyday. But when he hears the ever-present writer tell him that his life is about to end, Crick seeks help to find out whether he can avert his impending death.
Funnyman Will Ferrell made a return to quality comedy thanks to a re-teaming with writer-director Adam McKay earlier this year. The light-hearted antics and laugh-out-loud moments of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) were repeated with Talledga Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006). Stranger Than Fiction marks a change in tone as it sees Ferrell starring in a high concept tragi-comedy that attempts to bring amusement from Crick’s longing to know what kind of story he is in and how he might die. Ferrell plays the dull, confused taxman in a surprisingly effective way for a man more known for his crazy on-screen antics: here the laughs are at his helplessness and self-doubt. Ferrell is helped along by good support from Maggie Gyllenhaal and Dustin Hoffman.
Suffers under the strain of its own ambition.
Gyllenhaal provides love interest Ana, a cafe owner who is being inspected by Crick for tax evasion and provoking an unlikely romance between the two which is handled with care. Ana’s abrasive attitude acts injects some much needed energy to proceedings, helped along by Hoffman as literary professor Jules Hilbert. Crick turns to Hilbert to get a few tips on novel genres to second guess the author’s intentions. Hoffman’s zany role in I Heart Huckabees (David O. Russell, 2004) is replicated in part here as he babbles on about the finer points of literary theory, comedies and tragedies. The interaction between these characters with Crick, together with his general confusion over his predicament, make for an entertaining side to the film; however it suffers under the strain of its own ambition of another side.
You see, writer Zach Helm felt it necessary to add the narrator’s side of the story and complicate matters to the point of leaving massive holes in the plot. Emma Thompson is writer’s block sufferer Kay Eiffel whose publisher has given her an assistant, an under-used Queen Latifah, to help finish the story. As Crick bumbles amusingly around, Eiffel’s struggles to find a way to kill him are wedged in every so often to often confusing effect. You might ask yourself: if she is writing his story, how is he doing things when she is not typing? He has a constant existence yet she complains she is stuck. It all builds to a climax which would like to rival Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002) or Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001) for inventiveness, but is a messy and frustrating affair. If Stranger Than Fiction had focused and developed Crick without the needless author interludes, it would have made for a more coherent and fun tale. The intrigue that I had in the movie was in the promise of the constant narration: in fact, it is less about the narration Crick hears and more about metaphysical mumblings by the end.
…it is less about the narration Crick hears and more about metaphysical mumblings by the end.
Director Marc Foster has previously given us the highly-rated Finding Neverland (2004) and Monster’s Ball (2001), however his subtle style is not suited to the high concept fare on offer here. It really needed a director who was going to iron out the creases and pull it all together. Stranger Than Fiction is in no way a failure as the two parts of the story are lively and fun — it is the way that it falls away at the end after so much early promise that I found so frustrating. It is not quite the disaster of Bewitched (Nora Ephron, 2005), in which Ferrell was wasted in a film too smart for its own good, yet like that television crossover, it fails to live up to its potential. Stranger Than Fiction is fun for a while, gets a bit lost in itself in the middle and fluffs the ending: it needed another draft to get it completely right.