A Story Worth Telling: Thoughts on Stranger Than Fiction

One of the frustrating things about the canon of film is that it’s very narrative dependent. Movies that enter “the canon” tend to come from artists, people with clear visions who have career arcs. They star actors with clearly defined personas who might deviate dramatically but in a way that makes sense. They’re clear exemplars of their genres.

Thus it makes sense that the profound dramas of 2006, such as Children of Men and United 93, received walls of thinkpieces. They easily fit the narrative and I certainly won’t fight their respect. It makes sense that comedies like Borat (second only to This is Spinal Tap in my book) and weird fantasies like Pan’s Labyrinth last in our memory. They fit the predefined stories.

A movie like Stranger Than Fiction doesn’t fit anywhere, even in genre. It’s a comedy but it’s only occasionally laugh out loud funny. It’s a drama at times but not all that serious. It plays with meta elements but only lightly. Sure, it’s a more serious Will Ferrell film but he’s more a straight man than say a Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. The director is a journeyman and the writer only wrote one more script. It’s a film outside all narratives. No wonder it gets overlooked.

The thing is, it deserves far more than that. Because even if it’s a hard film to classify in theory, it’s a very simple film to classify in reality. Stranger Than Fiction is one of the single warmest, happiest films of the 2000s. It’s a film that speaks to the same spirit of Capra and Sturges, celebrating the glory of the ordinary. It’s a film in love with writing and writers. It almost dares you not to embrace it.

The movie tells the story of Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), an ordinary IRS agent who one day hears a voice (Emma Thompson) narrating his life, informing him he will die soon. Harold tries desperately to find out who the voice is, eventually turning to an eccentric literature professor, Dr. Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) who eventually helps him realize he’s a character in a novel written by the narrator and exactly what his fate is. At the same time we get the writer’s story as she struggles to finish the novel and faces a crisis as she realizes she’s playing God. Yet… the story must be told.

I have to start my analysis by conceding I’m an easy mark for this kind of film. I love analyzing literature. I mean I’m a critic after all. A movie that celebrates the craft of storytelling and the complexity of analyzing literature is for me all the way. I’m especially a mark for a film that does it right. This does it better than any film I’ve ever seen.

The movie shamelessly plays with the forced nature of many dramas. The entire plot hinges upon Hilbert getting excited by Harold noting he’s heard the words “little did he know,” a classic sign of foreshadowing. When Harold lays out the events of his life for Hilbert, one of the first things they do is try to pinpoint the genre. A feud with a baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) winds up tipping Hilbert into deciding it’s a romance. Then there’s the ending, where Harold reads the book, realizes he has to die, and goes to his death only to–

Actually let me get to the ending last. It deserves its own space.

The film has a strange reality to it, yet one of the most grounded ones I can recall. The conceit is that Harold becomes aware of his status in a book yet seemingly exists in the same reality as his author. No explanation for what’s going on is ever given. It simply is and trying to figure it out is pointless since it is just a work of fiction in reality. Yet because the film doesn’t care, I never felt the need to care.

And that fluffy approach to reality works wonders on setting the tone. This is a light, fluffy film. It certainly has cynical notes, especially with Thompson’s author, but it never quite seems to get dragged down by them. Instead it acknowledges that there’s bad but treats the normal, small things the characters enjoy as triumphs.

Much of the tone rests on the actors. Will Ferrell rarely plays serious roles and indeed, this is one of his lower performing films, but that’s a real loss. Ferrell is stellar here in a muted but still immensely likable role. With his normal status as the force of comedy on hold, Hoffman and Thompson more than step up to the plate. Together they form a yin/yang of upbeat goofiness and bleak pessimism, firing as hard as they can. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Queen Latifah both have strong supporting roles, far elevating the conventional love interest and assistant characters.

Then there’s the work of director Marc Forster and writer Zach Helm. In both cases, the film is a strange outlier. For Forster, it marks the only film of his I’ve more than liked with one movie I’ve outright hated (Monster’s Ball) to his name. He’s an impersonal technician whose films generally lack recognizable emotion yet he seems to modulate this one perfectly. Then there’s Helm, who after this film made the ill advised decision to leap to the director’s chair on a family film about death. It’s a shame he hasn’t written more as this shows such promise. All the same, I cherish that we have this.

I noted earlier that I’d get to the ending later. The thing about the ending is it builds to a paradox. Harold knows the entire time that he is destined to die and he even comes to accept it, realizing he will reach his fate saving a child from being hit by a bus. This is the ending the novel builds to. Except the novel isn’t the film. The film is about a character and a writer trying desperately to figure out a way to stop the seemingly inevitable in a way that works. No matter what the film has to build to a cheat in order to end satisfyingly.

And it does. In the end, Harold’s watch, which functions as a character in the story, is destroyed in the accident, which saves his life. It’s a complete cheat of an ending, one that the movie point blank calls out. It acknowledges that by letting Harold live, the story inside the story is weakened. But that’s also not the one we’re watching. The one we’re watching ends on a powerfully uplifting note with the writer noting “It’s a book about a man who doesn’t know he’s about to die and then dies. But if the man does know he’s going to die and dies anyway, dies willingly, knowing he could stop it, then… I mean, isn’t that the type of man you want to keep alive?”

That note is why I love this film. Because it’s a tribute to knowing how bad life is and fighting for it anyway. It’s a celebration of how art transforms us. It’s a film that more than any movie that decade taps into the joy life can bring. This may not be a movie that fits neatly into the categories and it may be too light for the canon. But I don’t care. It’s far better than the vast majority of films in 2006. Where does it fit? I’ll settle for a great movie.

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