In his first re-view for Ten Years Ago, Ivan Vukovic wishes for more mainstream offbeat fare in the vein of almost-gem Stranger Than Fiction.
The recipe for Stranger Than Fiction is one that we all see each time we scroll hopefully through a list of Netflix recommendations: Take two or three A-listers, throw in a couple of beloved up-and-comers from a critically acclaimed cult hit movie or TV series, add an offbeat premise, get an indie rocker to score the whole thing (this ingredient is optional), and you end up with something that some people liked, others were bored by, and most people just completely missed altogether. There is a limitless supply of these low-budget films out in the ether, and I’m always perplexed by how or why they managed to fly under the radar despite seeming like obvious contenders for art house theater darlings.
The thing is, these films simply didn’t exist back in 2006, at least not in abundance and with the accessibility they do today. So the first time I saw the trailer for Stranger Than Fiction, it seemed like a whole new flavor of wide-release offerings, one with the inventiveness and fringe factor of a festival film combined with the star power and budget of a studio joint. This was also a time when Will Ferrell was coming off a streak of some of the most lowest-common-denominator films in his career (Talladega Nights, Bewitched, Kicking & Screaming), so signs were pointing toward this possibility of this being his Punch-Drunk Love moment.
Ten years later, I’m still trying to decide where the film succeeded, where it failed, and whether it lives or dies by whether or not it’s a crowd-pleaser.
The story is one that warrants a somewhat detailed summary:
Enter Harold Crick, an IRS auditor living in Chicago (although it may as well be Anycity, USA) who leads a very structured and meticulously planned-out life, relying on his wristwatch to stick to a safe and predictable routine. One day, Harold begins to hear the voice of a verbose British woman that is narrating even his most mundane actions. He attempts to tune it out until the narrator suddenly warns of his “imminent death,” sending him into a state of brief distracted panic, upsetting the calm and balance of his lonely and lackluster everyday life.
The additional plot threads that are then introduced in rapid succession each merit a paragraph that begins with “meanwhile,” and after struggling to decide which one to outline first, I realized that they serve as somewhat of a Rorschach test when it comes to what one can consider the heart or driving force of the film. So here they are, outlined in a raw and unpolished manner:
1) Harold has been assigned to audit Ana Pascal, an alternagirl baker who is intentionally tax delinquent and is given no reason to try to make Harold’s job easy. Harold is immediately attracted to her upon their introduction, but he realizes that has his work cut out for him when it comes to both his professional and romantic dealings with Ana.
2) After a failed psychiatry attempt, Harold is referred to literature professor Jules Hilbert, who agrees to help Harold identify the mystery author behind the narrations, encouraging him to first pin down whether his narrative is a comedy or tragedy.
3) We, the audience, learn that the mystery narrator is Karen Eiffel, a literary titan who is struggling to complete her next book (which is all about our man Harold) and is stuck trying to come up with a way to kill him off.
Tasked with trying to identify whether he’s in a comedy or tragedy, Harold goes back to Ana’s bakery to conduct the audit, leading him to stay there through the evening to work through a miserably large stack of paperwork on a rainy day. At the end of the evening, Ana gives Harold a peace offering by baking a batch of cookies for him. He eats and enjoys a cookie, but then undoes the melting of the ice by refusing to accept the rest of the cookies to take home, offering to buy them instead. Ana is dismayed, Harold leaves, and he concludes that he’s in a tragedy.
This particular segment of the film sticks out to me, as Harold’s struggle to determine the comedic or tragic nature of his life is (perhaps unintentionally) reflected in the movie’s own struggle to balance the tone between a film that feels bleak and melancholy (Harold’s monotonous life, his inability to immediately connect with Ana) and one that feels quirky and whimsical (Dustin Hoffman’s professor character, Emma Thompson’s author character).
We get a particularly rich moment of the former when Ana is shocked to hear that Harold had never eaten a freshly baked cookie before in his life, offering only the explanation that his mother didn’t bake and the only cookies he ever had were store-bought. This exchange hints at a much deeper backstory on Harold that the film never expands upon. We know that Harold lives alone and doesn’t really have any friends, but in the absence of any kind of overt traits of social anxiety or depression, we are left in the dark as to why. This is the story I wanted to see more of, and would have gladly sat through a far more depressing and/or nuanced film to get it.
Harold reports back to the professor, who then recommends that Harold enjoy his remaining days to the fullest, as there seems to be little he can do to stop the inevitable. Harold takes the advice to heart—he takes time off from his job, builds a real friendship with a work acquaintance, learns to play guitar, and goes all in on his attempt to woo Ana, which results in success. With a new perspective, Harold visits Hilbert again to inform him that his life is indeed a comedy after all. During that meeting, Harold recognizes Karen Eiffel’s voice on the television in Hilbert’s office, and is warned by the professor that Eiffel ends all her books by killing the protagonist.
Harold tracks down and confronts Eiffel. She is shocked to learn that, with the completed press of a period key on her typewriter, she may have been killing off real people. She lends Harold a copy of her unfinished manuscript, and both he and the professor read it and conclude that it’s a masterpiece and that the ending only works well if the protagonist meets his demise. Harold makes peace with this and gives Eiffel his blessing to kill him off.
By this part of story, I imagine we’re supposed to root for Eiffel to change her mind and spare Harold’s life so that we can get a neat and tidy ending. Alternately, maybe we’re meant to be sold on the idea that Harold sacrificing his life would be an inspiring act that validates the complex and tragic nature of poetry and literature. It’s difficult to rally around either case, as neither Harold nor Eiffel have been built up to be sympathetic enough characters for us to want either of them to get a storybook ending, so to speak.
On the day that he is prepared to die, Harold jumps in front of a city bus to push a child out of the way of harm, resulting in his hospitalization. We learn that Harold’s wristwatch (which has been shown to have a personality of its own throughout the film) blocked an artery upon the collision that would have bled out and killed Harold. Hilbert reads the revised copy of Eiffel’s manuscript, in which Harold’s life is spared, and asserts that the story isn’t a literary marvel anymore in its revised state. Eiffel agrees and is content with this reality. Our hero lives.
The discussion question here is an obvious one: Would it have been a better film if Harold had died? Due to the imbalances of tone in the earlier part of the story, it’s difficult to say whether the movie deserved an ending as poignant and challenging of one as killing off the sometimes tragic, sometimes comedic protagonist would have delivered. Or would something less obvious and more left field (e.g. Eiffel as the narrator inserts herself into the story and sacrifices herself to save Harold’s life) have served as more unexpected and memorable conclusion, one that manages to marry the tragedy and comedy in a way that retroactively makes the rest of the film work?
Stranger Than Fiction is an ambitious film that dared to break the mold and introduce a new kind of mainstream genre to the masses. While it wasn’t a box office bomb by any means and still gets occasionally brought up in a positive light here and there, it ultimately failed to stick the landing regarding both its commercial success and its attempt at poignancy.
Upon release, I was so excited about the idea of this movie that I went to go see it twice (even after having not been blown away the first time through). I even bought the Timex watch that was featured in the film (not for the sake of collection; I needed a new watch at the time), although to my chagrin, the real-life version had a boring green backlight instead of the vibrant blue one in the film. Another letdown.
The future of creative filmmaking didn’t live or die by this movie alone, but you have to wonder what other risks studios would have taken if this almost-gem had made a bigger splash. I’d like to imagine a world in which more higher-budget star-powered offbeat comedies had solid theatrical runs instead of being fast-tracked to streaming services. I’d like to imagine this leading to a creative renaissance.
But hey, I’m not the one writing the story here.