Rapid Response: Stranger Than Fiction

Usually I write full reviews for movies that came out in the 2000s, but I had seen “Stranger Than Fiction” a lot, just not in probably seven years. I was reminded of it by this year’s “Ruby Sparks,” which is also a fantasy in which a writer can control the actions of a girl he has written and materialized in real life.

But I would argue “Stranger Than Fiction” is a much better film, one that gets at how authors and literature works without falling into the traps of most “writerly” movies, such as rapid fire dialogue, characters who are overly eloquent or extended passages of people sitting at typewriters.

It tells the story of Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), an office drone with the IRS who fastidiously counts strokes while brushing his teeth, lives a rigorously scheduled life and is a math whiz, who suddenly hears a voice in his head that appears to be narrating his life. This gimmick works beautifully because it comes so immediately. There’s a quick intro, and then Harold is instantly aware. There’s also little question as to what is happening to Harold, and it enables the screenplay with endless possibilities.

What makes it even more fun is that the voice is the salty and cynical work of Emma Thompson as acclaimed tragedy writer Karen Eiffel. She hasn’t published a novel in a decade and is plagued with severe writer’s block. She doesn’t know how to kill Harold Crick. But she knows it must happen, and she says as much in his internal narration: “Little did he know he would soon be met with his imminent death.”

The film was somewhat underrated upon its release because it struck critics as Charlie Kuafman lite (he fresh of “Eternal Sunshine” at this point), a clever fantasy idea of metaphors and morals but without as much of the cinematic whimsy. But the beauty of “Stranger Than Fiction” is its simplicity. Kaufman never wrote a conceit this tidy: man hears voices in his head and realizes he’s part of a story he cannot control. Even “The Truman Show” has more rules and fantastical gimmicks than this does.

I guess the bigger problem is not the premise but the payoff, which is admittedly not golden but is far from terrible. A small part of me wanted Harold to die at the end based on what he reads in Eiffel’s book, but that would never happen in a Hollywood movie. The argument is that his relationship with Maggie Gyllenhaal is never fully developed, but I’m here for the premise, and the excitement of Harold meeting Karen for the first time and hearing that his fate is already sealed can’t be matched.

This is also the only movie that convinces me Will Ferrell can act. He’s so perfect as Harold Crick partly because of his range in being funny and subdued and partly because he’s one of the few comedians who can shout to the heavens at a bus stop full of people without hesitation and not feel embarrassed. Harold becomes a delicious mix of a comedic and tragic figure that befits great literature, and he has a hilarious scene with Dustin Hoffman by simply parroting him saying “King of the Trolls.”

Hoffman too is a treasure of intellect, unpredictable quips and droll, ironic humor before switching to dramatic prowess in an instant. His out of body moment is in asking Harold if he counted all the tiles in the bathroom, a task that previously belonged to himself as the Rain Man. This is probably his best role of the last decade. Even Queen Latifah hasn’t been this good since.

The director is Marc Forster, who has arguably and sadly gotten worse since this film. His resume used to consist of “Monster’s Ball” and “Finding Neverland” and now includes a lame adaptation of “The Kite Runner,” “Quantum of Solace” and “Machine Gun Preacher.”

I believe that a film as simple and clever as “Stranger Than Fiction” can be made again, I just don’t think it’ll include Ferrell, Hoffman or Forster.