STRANGER THAN FICTION (Marc Forster, 2006)
Each of us is the protagonist in our own story. For IRS auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) in STRANGER THAN FICTION, the problem is that he's the main character of someone else's story.
One day while brushing his teeth Harold hears a British woman's voice narrating his actions. It wouldn't be out of the question for Harold to think that he's having some kind of psychotic break. In fact, that's what everyone else believes. Literature professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) offers his bemused, although not entirely sympathetic, assistance to Harold as he searches for the author of his life and imminent death.
Professor Hilbert assigns Harold the task of determining whether he's in a comedy or a tragedy. Considering his choice of employment and obsessive-compulsive fastidiousness, it could go either way. He tallies the events of his day auditing baker Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who he is innately drawn to, but Harold finds that his hapless interactions with her confuse matters more.
Eventually Harold identifies Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) as the voice he hears in his head. The professor informs him that his outcome is bleak. Kay kills off the main characters in all of her books. With an unknown amount of time left to live, Harold races to find the reclusive writer and plead with her not to off him.
STRANGER THAN FICTION'S premise and the presence of Ferrell indicate that the film is a comedy. It is but in a subtler way than the big concept and star's past work would suggest. Like life, the story isn't inherently funny or tragic but becomes one or the other depending on one's perspective. Such tenuousness requires a delicate balancing act that director Marc Forster, screenwriter Zach Helm, and the cast pull off beautifully.
Yes, ultimately it's about fully embracing life rather than staying locked in our habits and comfort zones, hardly a new moral to the story in the history of cinema, but STRANGER THAN FICTION brings vitality to the shopworn message. The plot unspools in novelistic fashion. Kay's narration presents the opportunity to convey interior thoughts that ordinarily play better on the page than the screen. Director Marc Forster utilizes a basic cool color scheme and geometric design to highlight the ordered but hermetic nature of Harold and Kay's worlds. It's no accident that more color and less rigid lines are found in scenes with the free-spirited Ana. In this way, the film recalls Jacques Tati's PLAYTIME.
STRANGER THAN FICTION is liberating for its characters and for moviegoers tired of films whose conclusions are apparent after the first ten minutes. The film has an inventive framing device that makes the tone hard to pin down at first, but in the end, it's nice to watch a well-told story whose finish can't be predicted at the outset.