Saturday, 4 October 2014

Movie Review: Stranger Than Fiction (2006)


A dramedy with serious themes of mental stagnation and death weaved into a comic structure, Stranger Than Fiction tackles writers block, mid-life angst and the value of life within a refreshing package.

In New York City, Internal Revenue Service auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is lonely, bored and boring. He lives his life metronomically and according to strict routine. Without warning Harold starts to hear a woman's voice in his head narrating his life. Although Harold does not know this, the voice belongs to celebrated author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), and Harold is the main character in her latest attempt to write a book. Once the darling of the literary world, Karen is now suffering a serious case of writer's block and has not published for 10 years. She is struggling to find a way to kill Harold, as she does with all her main characters at the end of each book.

Harold is tasked with auditing the bakery business of Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and finds himself helplessly falling in love with Ana. But he is driven to distraction by Karen's constant stream of narration, and gets no relief from a couple of doctors (Tom Hulce and Linda Hunt). He finally turns to literature professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) for help. Together Harold and Jules start to piece together the mystery of Harold's predicament. They have to figure out if he is a character in an unfolding comedy or tragedy, and how to influence the ending.

Directed by Marc Forster, Stranger Than Fiction is smart, funny and creative, as the Lindsay Doran script deploys an innovative premise to get into the head of two intriguing characters grappling with endings and beginnings. Harold, for all practical purposes, is already dead. His life is passive and he has no meaningful connections with other people. Lacking ambition and not feeling passionate about anything, Harold is marching to an inevitable and inconspicuous ending; when and how he actually dies will be generally immaterial.

Once Harold becomes keenly aware of his own impending end, thanks to Karen's interventive narration, he is pushed out of his middle-age malaise and starts to live, and suddenly dying is a big and scary deal. Harold pursues a relationship with Ana and is forced into a friendship with a co-worker. He starts to pursue a long dormant guitar passion, changes his clothes, and stumbles onto a life mentor in Jules. Now with multiple purposes driving his existence, Harold is eager to prevent his premature death.

Karen is also going through a painful mid-life crisis and is professionally dying a slow death. Now fading from memory as a once-famous author, Karen needs to unblock her creativity, and finding a meaningful way to kill Harold will spark her revival. His death will breathe life into her career, but Karen is also struggling with the perversity of her success riding on the shoulders of the demise of all her main characters. The death that used to come easily on the written page is now a struggle, forcing Karen to ponder whether the value of life comes only at the price of death.

Will Ferrell puts his frat boy humour to one side and delivers an affecting performance as Harold. Containing himself and delivering soft humour through pathos, Ferrell demonstrates appreciated depth. Emma Thompson plays Karen as anguished and borderline depressed, while Maggie Gyllenhaal presents Ana as the anti-Harold, full of life, impulsiveness and not afraid to break the rules in small demonstrations of personal anarchy.

A bright treatment of death's place in emphasizing life, Stranger Than Fiction is an adroit confirmation of enduring human realities.






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