Why cannot Will Ferrell star in more movies like Stranger Than Fiction (2006)? In the overwhelming majority of his roles, he plays a blithering idiot. He rather acts like one, too, in real life. I do not know him personally (or at all), so I have no frame of reference for how he behaves when not on camera. A quick glance at his filmography will show you that there are few movies where he plays somebody like the unassuming, dedicated to routine Internal Revenue Service (IRS) employee Harold Crick. In the moments where this character does step out of his staid norms, they are the brief opportunities where Ferrell is allowed to ham it up in the manner that brought him superstardom. These sequences fit with the story, but are also the least interesting aspects of the film. In all, I have to give Ferrell credit. Most will probably disagree with me when I say that this is likely his best movie, and that is okay. Everyone is entitled to have their own opinion about such things, and to have that stance respected. For me, if given a choice, I will watch Stranger Than Fiction over any of his other titles.
Harold Crick awakens on a Wednesday morning at the dawn of Stranger Than Fiction. A narrator is categorizing the precise routine he follows, down to the exact number of brush strokes he makes on all thirty-two of his teeth. It is a schedule by which his watch is eternally satisfied. The narration is unique in that Harold can hear it, as we the audience can, a fact he first notices while brushing his teeth. At first, he dismisses it as a Wednesday, you know, or just him thinking rather loudly in his own head, though in the voice of a British female with a better vocabulary. It is the word use, and the voice’s omniscience, that convince him that it is something else entirely. Meanwhile, in another part of town, esteemed author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) has writer’s block. It quickly becomes apparent that she is the narrator. The words she manages to put to paper are her next book and Harold Crick is her main character. Little does she know (and if you are familiar with the movie, please note the intentional irony here) that her new protagonist is a real person, and that her scribblings are giving an audible (to him only) play-by-play of his daily life. This would be more of a minor annoyance for Harold if it were not for one key fact: Karen kills all her main characters. Harold is just getting used to this new feature when it announces to him that he will soon die. As no one likes to be told of their imminent demise, he eventually ends up seeking help from an esteemed literary professor, Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman). Professor Hilbert attempts to figure out whether or not he is in a comedy or a tragedy. If the former, he will get married, if the latter, he dies. While this is all taking shape, Harold is called upon to audit a local baker, a young woman named Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who owns her own bakery. She is initially none too pleased to see the “tax man,” though he remains steadfast in the necessity of his presence as it appears that she did not pay her full share of her assessment. It is Karen’s narration that clues Harold into the fact that he is developing a crush on her before he realizes it. At Professor Hilbert’s suggestion, Harold tests in his shy, subtle way as to whether or not Ana might feel the same way as he. She does not make it easy, but she is impressed by his earnestness. What eventually wins her over is when he brings her flours (note the spelling), a sure way into any baker’s heart. Shortly thereafter, while in Professor Hilbert’s office, Harold also finds out Karen’s identity when he sees her being interviewed on television. Professor Hilbert, being quite familiar with Karen’s work, tells Harold what typically happens to Karen’s characters. Hence, despite the blossoming of Harold’s relationship with Ana, it looks like he might be in a tragedy after all. Because he works for the IRS, he is able to track Karen down. The realization that her protagonist is a real person and that she has essentially been writing his life is a difficult idea for her to accept. In fairness, she lets Harold read the ending of the book, though the part containing his death she has yet to type. At first, he cannot bring himself to look at it, deferring to Professor Hilbert. When the literary professor looks at it, he tells Harold he must die for the sake of the book’s ending. Harold rebels at this notion, but then reviewing it himself, resigns himself to his fate. Thus, the next day, at the appointed time, he saves a young boy from getting hit by a bus, pushing the kid out of the way but getting struck himself. Karen, however, cannot bring herself to actually end Harold’s life. Instead, she has Harold end up in the hospital, being saved by a shard of his watch stemming blood loss at the crucial moment. When Professor Hilbert re-reads the final product, he proclaims it okay. Because there is a real, living, breathing person involved, Karen says she is fine with “okay.”
One of the oft repeated connections to the Catholic Faith made by The Legionnaire is the willingness of main characters to make sacrifices. Karen does this in Stranger Than Fiction with the ending of her book, which is a unique form of the act. The selflessness of Harold to give his life for a stranger is noteworthy as well. Still, I wanted to praise Karen for her reticence to not essentially murder someone for her own aggrandizement. She could have gotten away with it, too, because who outside of herself and Harold would have known or believed that everything she wrote about him would happen? She could have written him dead and collected all the money and accolades for a novel that, according to Professor Hilbert, was to be a masterpiece for an already well-established author had she kept her original ending. It takes strength of character to do what she did, and I applaud her. I also wanted to comment on Harold’s lifestyle. I admire his routine, the simplicity of his life, particularly before the narration started. I try to keep a schedule myself, my own way of living a sort of individual monastic life where daily rigor is as common as the air you breath. It works for the moment, just like it did for Harold. He was not looking for a change to his lifestyle, much less a British woman to suddenly have control over the next couple weeks of his life. Yet, God works in mysterious ways. While I would not call Karen god, the power she exercises is immense, even if she is initially unaware of it. I am thankful that this does not happen often in the Faith life, at least for me because I do not know how I would handle God talking to me as you see in the movie. I want to say I would welcome it, but who knows? There have been saints who have had similar experiences. St. Catherine of Sienna, for example, conversed with Jesus as you and I would talk if we ever met. When you talk to those who are living their vocations, many of them point to an extraordinary time when the Divine intervened in their lives to show them the way forward. Karen does that for Harold.
I like Stranger Than Fiction, though I must confess to being somewhat annoyed by it. Any Chicagoan with his or her hot dog will watch this movie and know immediately that it was filmed in our fair city. The downtown areas are familiar, his friend and co-worker Dave lives in the iconic River City Condominiums, and Professor Hilbert’s office is in the tallest building on the University of Illinois-Chicago’s near west-side campus. Yet, they never mention Chicago by name, unfortunately. This is but a minor complaint in an otherwise good movie that is worth a view.