Harold Crick’s life is being narrated. Unfortunately, this narrator, though ambitious and more original than most, still has nothing interesting to say. Rare is the Hollywood film that manages to entice primarily with its premise, to produce a wave of originality in the calm sea that is Hollywood genre product. However, Stranger Than Fiction does just that (even if the wave is a tiny one); and, although it doesn’t entirely deliver on its promises, it also doesn’t entirely disappoint.
Stranger Than Fiction is about a Harold Crick, a white-collar square who wakes up one morning and finds, while brushing his teeth, that his life is being narrated by the voice of a British woman. “Harold counted brush strokes,” says the voice, and, indeed, Harold is counting brush strokes.
After finding out that no one else can hear this voice, Harold, quite rationally, assumes that he’s going insane, and seeks help at the usual places: psychologists, psychiatrists, shrinks. However, this proves no help, and, soon enough, Harold finds himself getting desperate, and enlisting the services of an English professor (played wonderfully by Dustin Hoffman) to solve his problem. The English professor thinks things through, and decides the following: Harold Crick is part of a plot being narrated by an author. Meanwhile, Harold also falls in love with a smart, anti-establishment bakery-owner/baker in what is, partly, the obligatory romance in the film.
If all this seems slightly too cute, too quirky, too much like the Charlie Kaufman-penned films of recent years, that’s because it is. Make no mistake: Stranger Than Fiction is a Kaufman clone (and, therefore, perhaps a genre product of its own kindr), but it’s not one devoid of virtue. It’s a second-rate imitation, a smaller wave to Kaufman’s bigger one, but a wave nonetheless. It does rise above sea level.
If there is a real sore point in the film to pick out, it’s the inclusion of Will Ferrell in the lead role. No doubt, this was meant to be a selling point for the producers and a chance at something more “cerebral” for Ferrell (think Adam Sandler in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love), but it doesn’t quite work to the film’s benefit. Ferrell’s one-trick display of, well, not being Will Ferrell while channeling a dopey Bill Murray, grows tiresome by the end. And, while he doesn’t make Harold Crick an unlikable guy, he does make it easy to say goodbye to him over the closing credits.
Stranger Than Fiction also doesn’t explore, to any satisfactory degree, the cinematic consequences of its idea: it’s a film stuck very much on the page. Sure, it’s ably directed by the professional-yet-boring camera of Marc Foster, whose Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland were both critically overrated, but neither he nor the screenwriter seem at all interested in just what the voice-over, the incessant narration, means for Harold Crick, or for the viewer. By the film’s conclusion, any hopes for a gesture that winks at the audience, that reveals a knowledge on the part of the filmmakers of the issues they’re dealing with, are strongly dashed. The film’s final shots are a death blow. A story that could have been about a character, quite literally, regaining control, voice, over his own life turns, instead, into an exercise in banal post-modernism — PoMo at its most shallow.
If Stranger Than Fiction is a wave, it is a wave still no more than half an inch high, on a sea whose uniform depth is a mere three inches. Seen from far enough away, this difference is invisible. However, if one looks more closely, the difference between wave crest and the surface of the sea can be discerned; and, it can be calculated: Stranger Than Fiction is an exact 7/6 to Hollywood’s average 1.Rating: C+