Stranger than Fiction
March 12, 2007
At some point in their careers many comedians want to be taken seriously. Robin Williams, Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler have all tried their hand at more dramatic fare with varying degrees of success. Lately, Will Ferrell has been making inroads at more challenging work with Stranger than Fiction (2006), a self-reflexive tale in the same vein as Charlie Kaufman-penned films, Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002).
Harold Crick (Ferrell) is an IRS agent who leads an average existence until he hears a voice narrating his life and figures out that he’s the protagonist in a novel-in-progress being written by Karen Eiffel (Thompson), a reclusive author famous for killing off the main characters in her books. Eiffel has her own problems: she has fantasies about committing suicide and is suffering from writer’s block. To make matters worse, her publishers send an assistant (Latifah) to help her finish the book.
Harold is a buttoned-down type who sees the world in terms of numbers (his favourite word is “integer”) but this all changes with the discovery of the narrator in his life and a growing attraction towards a woman he’s auditing, Ana Pascal (Gyllenhaal), an anarchist who runs a bakery (shades of the romance between an average man and a colourful woman in Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). His life gets even more complicated when the narrating voice in his head tells him that he will soon die and Harold tries to figure out the source of the voice and prevent his demise.
The gradual romance between Harold and Ana is well-done. Will Ferrell and Maggie Gyllenhaal have good chemistry together and their characters contrast each other well. We end up rooting for them to fall in love. Gyllenhaal plays a warm, attractive woman who is quite endearing. At first, she comes off as abrasive but that is because her character is being audited. The more Ana gets to know Harold, she realizes that he’s not some calculated office drone and he chips away at her defenses. He learns more about who she is and this only deepens his love for her.
Will Ferrell reigns in his trademark shtick to play a non-descript man whose life is turned upside down once he hears Eiffel narrating his life. The comedian gestures very little and when he does, they are tiny, controlled movements. He thankfully resists the urge to play it broad, adhering to the less-is-more approach. He is quite good in the everyman role with a compelling dilemma: someone who is not in control of their own fate but at the mercy of another. Harold’s arc is going from a passive character to a proactive one. Ferrell’s performance, at times, is oddly touching and even moving as he suggests a depth that hasn’t been present in anything he’s done before (although, he came close in Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda).
Stranger than Fiction wrestles with notions of fate. Is everything we do predestined or a random collection of events? It’s all about having control over our actions. The film also celebrates the small but meaningful pleasures of life and how we have to be receptive to them because they make life worth living.
“Actors in Search of a Story” takes a look at the cast of the movie. Director Marc Forster talks about how he cast the main actors while they talk about their characters. Everyone talks about how shy and low key Ferrell is in real life.
“Building the Team” examines how Forster got involved in the film and what drew him to the material. Cast and crew gush about how wonderful he is while his regular collaborators talk about how he likes to work with the same key people.
“On Location in Chicago” takes a look at shooting on location in the city. Forster chose Chicago for its architectural style. He shot on actual locations whenever possible in order to keep things grounded in realism.
“Words on a Page” examines the script with its author Zach Helm talking about how he was influenced by the films of Hal Ashby. He also speaks about the unusual shifts in tone in his script and how he wanted to write something different from the usual dramedy.
“Picture a Number: The Evolution of a G.U.I.” takes a look at the special effects that helped visualize the numbers that Harold is obsessed with. We see some of the early tests and hear what the key technicians have to say about this groundbreaking visual effect.
“On the Set” is a musical montage of candid moments while the cast and crew were making the movie.
Finally, there is “Deleted and Extended Scenes” including an extension of the Karen Eiffel interview that we only see a small portion of in the film and another interview with a made-up author that was to be played in the background of a scene. Both of these scenes feature an amusing blend of scripted dialogue and improvisation.