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.