Movie Review: Stranger Than Fiction

SPOILER ALERT: Details about plot are revealed in the following post (since the plot is what I’m interested in spouting off about), so skip it if you plan to write me an angry letter because I told you that yes, Darth Vader really is Luke’s father.

Last Saturday afternoon I went to see Stranger Than Fiction, the new sorta-comedy directed by Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Neverland) and starring Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman and Maggie Gyllenhaal. It’s a winsome and whimsical little movie that manages to be both smart and heartfelt, and it rides the fine line between charming and too precious without crossing over to smarmy.

Stranger Than Fiction will be to Will Ferrell’s career what The Truman Show was to Jim Carrey’s. Ferrell proves that he can, in fact, act, and it’s great to see him pull off poignantly humorous just as well as he does raucously silly. Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an IRS auditor who lives his life by the numbers until one morning while brushing his teeth (exactly 32 times in every direction), he hears a mysterious woman’s voice narrating his every move. He’s pretty sure he’s not crazy, since the voice isn’t telling him to blow people up or start a tinfoil hat company, but it’s unnerving nonetheless. He eventually enlists the help of a prominent literature professor (Hoffman) to help him figure out what author could be narrating his (so far, rather uneventful) life.

The author is Karen Eiffel (Thompson), a celebrated novelist who hasn’t written a thing in 10 years, and who is struggling to figure out the ending for what might possibly be her crowning literary achievement, Death and Taxes. Eiffel always kills her hero, and thus is born the film’s driving conflict: Harold doesn’t want to die, not now, not just as he’s starting to truly live his life — this shift, ironically, due to the insistent British voice in his head telling him how narrow and pointless is his existence.

This, for me, is the film’s most powerful and subtle theme: that being part of a story is what gives us meaning. It is only after Harold discovers the import of his smallest action or thought to the larger narrative that he begins to value those little choices, realizing that he can’t help but affect the ultimate outcome, whatever that may be.

The conflict escalates when Harold finally tracks down the reclusive Eiffel and is given the chance to read the drafted ending, in which (here’s the spoiler, folks) he dies a heroic and meaningful death. Harold now has a choice: Will he serve the story by going bravely to his demise (thereby redeeming his previously meaningless existence), or will he choose to save his meager life (thereby refusing the Grand Narrative that offers justification)?

The parallels with the spiritual (and particularly, the Christian) life are probably quite obvious by now, and I don’t want to disrespect your intelligence by beating a very dead horse. I also don’t want to give away the ending, because that would just be rude. But let me say this: When I emerged from the theater on Saturday afternoon, I felt glad — so glad, nearly to the point of giddiness — that an almost-absurd little film about death and taxes could remind me how sweet it is to be part of a Story, and I felt even more convinced that telling compelling and true stories is a necessary element of what it means to be human, full of meaning and possibility.

5 thoughts on “Movie Review: Stranger Than Fiction

  1. Sharolyn

    First of all, Aly, I apologize for starting the aside. I didn’t realize you had written a review.

    [quote post="1034"]This, for me, is the film’s most powerful and subtle theme: that being part of a story is what gives us meaning.[/quote]

    I needed to hear your and Chad’s thoughts to appreciate the movie. Honestly, I thought the sets and dialogue felt very removed (to convey third person?), so to me it didn’t feel “heartfelt”. I wanted to care more if he lived or died, and just kind of assumed he’d fall in love. I confess it was the end of a long day when I watched it, so I likely wasn’t thinking deeply enough. In other words, I don’t fault the movie makers for my lack of connection.

    [quote post="1034"]I don’t want to disrespect your intelligence by beating a very dead horse.[/quote]

    Insult away! I assume you refer to a Christ parallel, but are you thinking more specifically than that?

  2. michael lee

    I loved, LOVED this movie! To me, one of the most brilliant moments was the series of cut scenes where Dustin Hoffman reads the script, and has to decide what he’s going to say to Will Ferrell when comes back to ask if he is going to live or die.

    Hoffman, the literary critique, the one who has doggedly and unsuccessfully tried to connect with the author over the course of her entire career, is finally invited to actually participate in creating the story. It’s a Schrodinger moment, where Hoffman’s act of observing the story has changed the outcome of the story. Hurray for post-modern literary devices!

  3. Gretchen

    I hate how you see all our “to see at home because we never have a chance to see them in the theatres anymore, now that we’re parents” movies while I’m away visiting the family without you, Mike. Don’t you know you’re supposed to just sit around and miss me, while doing nothing? sheesh.

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