Will Ferrell is Harold Crick, an IRS auditor with an OCD-like daily use for his knack for mathematics. Emma Thompson is Karen Eiffel, a neurotic and depressive writer who cannot finish her newest novel. Harold Crick is the protagonist of Karen Eiffel’s newest novel—supposedly an unassuming everyman, living his everyday life in an anytown, unaware of his fate. But he is fully aware, because he’s been hearing Eiffel narrate his day-to-day torpor and she’s spot on with every minute detail, like the sound of folders pulled across one another mimicking soft ocean waves cresting on a beach. Her novel is moot if Crick is aware of his “imminent death” because that hideous phrase “little did he know” is simply wrong: he knows. Stranger Than Fiction is a movie, confused about its intent and clumsily executed at that. Zach Helm is a screenwriter, clever and witty and myopic. Marc Foster is a director, quick to telegraph the screenplay in an effort to streamline the story while undermining his cast’s roundly good performances with borrowed tricks and a meticulous art direction that serves only to distract.
The aggravation sets in right up front with a visual gimmick that is lifted wholesale from Fight Club’s Ikea catalogue sequence: Harold Crick’s precision (counting brushstrokes, tying a half-Windsor, the speed of his gait as he tries to catch the bus) is animated onscreen with little white numbers ticking up and diagrams unfolding just off the central action. We’re supposed to see this as an inroad into Harold’s mind: that he works up calculations for co-workers instantaneously proves he’s boxed in by his undeniable squaredom. The action is described by that obnoxious, third-person omniscient narrator Eiffel (Thompson) with buzz words like “innocuous” and the aforementioned “imminent”.
It might all be unwatchable if it weren’t for Ferrell. He built his name on broad comedy from the beginning but, in fact, he’s a real actor with an enviable skill set, able to subvert the gimmicky hucksterism of Ricky Bobby and Ron Burgundy when needed. His gift for infusing subtle comedy into a straight man role recalls those of his logical predecessor, Bill Murray’s, in one of his best and least-seen performances, The Razor’s Edge. Unfortunately, at every turn, Forster rears his misguided hand to bitch slap the movie, and Farrell’s Crick, into submission. Consider the scene where Crick breaks down, unable to endure Eiffel’s incessant narration, and tears apart his apartment. Thompson’s voice is absent, and Ferrell narrates the scene himself, yelling at his toothbrush and bed lamp and closet. It’s hilarious, really, how he throws himself into this by-the-numbers scene—but halfway through, Forster slips in a string section to tell us this is poignant, completely shifting the tone for no reason, rendering the flailing awkward instead of funny. This abrupt tonal shift maneuver is used again and again, and it never works.
After striking out with a shrink (a wasted Linda Hunt), Harold turns to the caffeine-addled literary theory Professor Jules Hilbert, played by Dustin Hoffman with the manic runoff from his I [Heart} Huckabees performance. Harold hopes that the professor might help him figure out whether he can stop his imminent death, or maybe identify his omniscient narrator; needless to say, this leads to quirky banter, with plenty of laughs earned by both actors. It’s here that Helm tries his hand at appropriating some of Charlie Kaufman’s bag of tricks from Adaptation. No surprise, they don’t translate. These scenes succeed because of the inherent charm of both actors, not because they offer a well-reasoned deconstruction of narrative. It’s textbook literary theory: anybody can think this way if they took the right course.
Thompson’s Karen Eiffel, like this film, is a mess. Here we have an Oscar-winning actress playing a reclusive Pynchonesque writer whose prose sounds no more brilliant than what you’d find in the innumerable pulp paperbacks littering the globe. She seems like the film’s worst creation until Queen Latifah shows up in as an assistant sent by the publisher to ensure the completion of Eiffel’s novel. Latifah’s mainly a mouthpiece for a litany of “Less smoking, more writing” inanities. Thompson, however, rises above the material and delivers a well wrought portrait of a woman struggling with more than words, even if the screenplay doesn’t call for it; this more or less relegates Latifah to the cinematic dunce corner, where she does even less for the movie. Their scenes are at once both intermittently rewarding and pointlessly maddening: at one point Eiffel is doing “research” on death (and how to kill Harold Crick) in an ER, and when she realizes those gurneyed past her will likely survive, she asks a nurse where the people who won’t live are located. But the scene ends with a broad “You crazy missus” one-liner rather than the embedded black humor.
Farrell’s deft timing is the film’s most rewarding element. He’s able to sell Harold’s transformation from closed-in cipher to exuberant lover/liver despite all the hurdles the screenplay and the director place in his path There’s no logical reason he and Maggie Gyllenhaal—playing a local baker he’s sent to audit—should have any chemistry at all, much less that which they cook up in their improbable romance. There are at least two too many movies fighting inside Stranger Than Fiction, and they all remind the viewer of better movies they’ve seen before. If the film had hewed close to Harold Crick as long as possible, and stayed away from Karen Eiffel in that space, it may have succeeded in balancing its meta-movie tangents with the warmth of the romance. Ferrell’s charisma can almost make me believe that, no matter how blatantly Marc Forster illustrates the ideas.
Ryland Walker Knight is a Seattle-based critic and the publisher of the blog Vinyl Is Heavy. This is his first article for The House Next Door.