by by Erin Salvi
WHITMAN COLLEGE PIONEER
“Truth is stranger than Fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” When Mark Twain wrote these words back in the 1800s, I doubt he could have foreseen that Zach Helm would use them as the premise for a postmodern screenplay in 2006. Yet, the fact that “Stranger Than Fiction,” directed by Marc Forster, even exists seems to be a tribute to Twain’s idea that what we experience in real life often surprises us more than anything we might find in a book.
The film tells the tale of Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), an IRS auditor who leads a monotonous, mechanical life. Or, rather, I should say that the film reveals the tale of Harold Crick, because it is really Emma Thompson’s character who tells his tale. Thompson plays Karen Eiffel, a haggard, chain-smoking writer whose latest novel just happens to be about Harold Crick.
However, Karen doesn’t know that Harold is real. And Harold doesn’t know that Karen exists. That is, until he begins to hear her voice accurately narrating his every action. This, of course, would be an unsettling occurrence in and of itself, but as Karen’s narration persists, Harold soon finds out a much more disturbing fact: he is going to die. Karen plans to kill him off at the end of her book.
Fearing his imminent death, Harold seeks the help of Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), a literary expert, hoping he can help him identify the narrative voice he keeps hearing. Hilbert leads him through a series of questions, trying to figure out if Harold is living in a comedy or a tragedy in the traditional sense of the terms (tragedy ends in death, comedy ends with marriage), assuming that with this method they will at least discover if Harold is really going to die or not.
Harold isn’t sure which kind of life he’s living until he meets Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an anarchist bakery owner whom the IRS is auditing, and begins a relationship with her. The relationship inspires him to break out of the tedium of his life, but he must still grapple with the fact that the click of a typewriter could determine the moment of his demise.
Helm’s script is clever and has a very Charlie Kaufman-esque postmodern tone to it. It is surprisingly easy to go along with the seemingly absurd idea that Karen is somehow controlling what happens in Harold’s life through her writing, and that she could possibly hold his life or death in her hands. In fact, what is most unbelievable about the script is the so-called “brilliant” novel that Karen is writing, in which the most complex metaphor involves the relationship between a man and his digital watch.
Ferrell is impressively subdued as Harold, given his usual outrageous acting style in movies such as “Old School” and “Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” However, I’m not sure if it is his actual performance that is truly impressive, or if it is simply the vast difference between this performance and others that makes it stand out. Thompson is wonderfully anxious as Karen, and Hoffman and Gyllenhaal make for an excellent supporting cast.
The end of the film doesn’t quite live up to the inventiveness of the rest of it; Helm wraps things up a bit too nicely for the complications that he initially sets up. Really, the film isn’t so “strange” after all; it’s just a creative approach to encouraging people to live life to the fullest.
The entire purpose of the film is well-represented by a conversation in which Professor Hilbert suggests that Harold could eat nothing but pancakes if he wanted, to which Harold replies, “What is wrong with you? Hey, I don’t want to eat nothing but pancakes, I want to live! I mean, who in their right mind in a choice between pancakes and living chooses pancakes?” Hilbert responds, “Harold, if you pause to think, you’d realize that that answer is inextricably contingent upon the type of life being led … and, of course, the quality of the pancakes.” It is a film about our innate desire to live, and the need to do it to the best of our ability. And if we get to eat some tasty pancakes along the way, that’s okay, too.