When it comes to movies, I am behind. Decades ago, I spent two years abroad, and while I blame my absence for being out-of-sync with Hollywood, it isn’t true. I’ve never been able to keep up with cinema. I try to get to the theater to see the movies I’m interested in when they come out, but I often don’t manage that. As I result, I rely on reviews to guide me to what is worth seeing and Netflix to supply me with them, no matter how out of date. Which is why, although it is two-and-a-half years old, Stranger Than Fiction is my Movie of the Week.
I had heard this was a good movie, but I wish I hadn’t waited so long to see it. Brilliantly written, with a stellar cast right down to the smallest of roles, Stranger Than Fiction deserved more attention than it got. It didn’t receive a single nomination from the Academy, which is a shame. The indie film that got the attention that year was Little Miss Sunshine, another movie I love, but I don’t think it’s as good as STF. At a minimum, STF deserved Best Original Script (Zach Helm). The directing (Marc Forster), cinematography (Roberto Schaefer), and design work (Craig Jackson) which all fit together perfectly to give visual and emotional dimensions to this wonderful story, also deserved recognition.
Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), an IRS employee who lives life by the numbers, from how many steps it is to the bus stop, to how many strokes he makes with his tooth brush, goes through his strict routines with a female narrator telling us all about him. Things get strange when Harold starts reacting to the narrator, trying to figure out where the voice is coming from, and wondering if he is going crazy. His concern goes from frustrated to frantic when he hears the voice say that he will die soon. As he tells everyone, the voice is always right, and, crazy or not, he doesn’t want to die.
Harold begins to break out of his routine intentionally and seeks professional help. The man who helps him most turns out to be a literature professor, Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman). Together Harold and the professor try to figure out what sort of story Harold is caught up in and who is writing it. The audience already knows who the author is: Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a delightfully neurotic chain-smoker with writer’s block. Her great dilemma is how to kill Harold off.
The story follows lovely and unexpected twists as both author and character struggle with Harold’s story. I don’t want to blow any more of the surprises this delightful movie has in store. All I can do is urge you to see it.
I will admit that, as a writer myself, I may be a little biased. The interactions between the character and his story, and the character and the author are both honest and bittersweet. I had hoped for an intriguing relationship between Jodie Foster’s author Alexandra Rover and her books’ hero Alex Rover (Gerard Butler) in Nim’s Island, and was gravely disappointed. It may have been unfair of me to have high expectations of a movie clearly geared towards kids, but I don’t see why we can’t give children truth in their literature and movies and still entertain. Stranger Than Fiction was what I was wishing for, and delivered much more than I thought possible.
A beautiful story told with a clarity that is not simple, Stranger Than Fiction is not just a movie, it’s a masterpiece. And it’s not just for writers. Harold’s dilemmas and choices are about what it means to be human. I intend to buy it for our collection and I can’t wait to see it again.