Sometimes all it takes is one scene to rescue a faltering movie. Stranger Than Fiction, the new film from Finding Neverland director Marc Forester is a great example of a film saved by one tender scene that sheds a light on an otherwise inscrutable character.
Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, a by the numbers IRS auditor. Numbers rule his life, not only at work but in his personal life as well. He counts the number of brush strokes he uses to clean his teeth, the number of steps to the bus stop and can do extremely complicated equations in his head.
His drab Kafkaesque existence is upended when he becomes aware of a narrator’s voice in his head. The voice doesn’t speak to him directly, it simply documents his life, like a writer describing a scene. It’s bothersome, but benign until the day it announces that Crick’s death is imminent. Crick, with the help of a professor of literature (Dustin Hoffman) tries to decipher the source of the voice, coming up with a surreal conclusion—Crick is a fictional character in someone’s book who by some means manages to live in the real world. The realization that his life might not be his own and a budding romance with an anarchist baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) fill Crick with the desire to make his life mean something.
It’s a strange, but sweet meta-story, one that echoes themes from The Truman Show, Adaptation and Pleasantville of a character in search of a story.
At the beginning of the movie Ferrell is a blank slate, a character so devoid of personality that he barely exists. The actor has a rough road ahead making this character compelling enough to maintain our interest. For me he doesn’t really succeed until midway through the movie when his romance with the baker starts to develop. [SPOILER ALERT] In one great scene he hesitantly plays a song on guitar for Gyllenhaal and immediately takes the character from zero to hero. With his high pitched, tentative voice mumbling through the opening verse of Whole Wide World, a song about long lost love, it is touching and a big step toward Crick taking power over his own life. It’s the scene where Ferrell takes control of the character and is one of the most romantic sequences in a movie since Paul Giamatti and Virginia Madsen talked about their love of wine in Sideways a couple of years back.
Stranger Than Fiction is an odd movie, with high points, the aforementioned serenade, Emma Thompson as Crick’s unwitting narrator that far outweigh its negatives. The metaphysical angle doesn’t quite work, but the winning performances and strong message of finding one’s self worth rise above any deficiencies.