When initially released in 2006, Marc Forster and Zach Helm’s Stranger Than Fiction was oft accused of being “Charlie Kaufman-lite.” It wasn’t so high a concept that it was inaccessible, nor was it so basic in its construction or world-building that it was boring. It was, allegedly, a notch below the complexities and complications of worlds like Being John Malkovich and Synecdoche, New York. But such high-mindedness and disdain (primarily towards Helm’s work) seems rather unfair, as Stranger Than Fiction is able to display a kind of vulnerability that is certainly on par with Kaufman’s best film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. While the world of Kaufman and Jonze was canonized by the Criterion release of Being John Malkovich, Criterion has dipped their toes into the pool of metacinema plenty of times with 8 ½, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (William Greaves’ documentary on making a documentary), Burden of Dreams and Close-Up, but nary have they featured a film with a character using literary (and/or cinematic) tropes as a playground while investigating themes of intimacy and love.
Helm’s premise for Stranger Than Fiction is closer to Rod Serling if he were feeling sappy: an IRS agent named Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) hears a voice narrating his life, only to discover that he’s the character of a well-known tragic novelist (Emma Thompson). While seeking help from an English professor (Dustin Hoffman), he falls in love with a fiery baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and bounces around theoretical literary models and tropes.
There’s a surface-level cuteness in Stranger Than Fiction, which is charming enough by itself and allows for a typically absurdist and expressionistic comic like Ferrell to restrain himself and play something more rigid and neurotic. Not a trace of his manic persona is evident in the film, as Ferrell instead illustrates Crick with a careful hesitance. Thompson’s narration certainly helps inform the character, but Ferrell’s performance is able to bring it home with small, innocuous moments like his voice trailing off — an aspect that reveals an interesting insecurity.
On that surface is a playful visual design (created by MK12) illustrating what’s going on in Harold’s mind. But what’s more compelling is how the blocks, numbers and frames dissipate as Harold becomes more assimilated to his life as a possible fictional character falling deeply in love with one Ana Pascal.
The meta nature of the story is — for what it’s worth — a loving tribute to the power of storytelling and the struggle of being a writer. Eiffel (Thompson), with the aide of Queen Latifah as a writer’s assistant, imagines Harold’s death in numerous ways with recurring characters acting as cinematic motifs. The meta levels of deconstruction regarding story, structure, plot and character (drolly detailed by Hoffman’s Professor Hilbert) are nothing compared to the sincere romance and carpe diem-esque vibe. As the end of the film nears, Harold reorients his goals and desires, as the looming threat of the novelesque sword of Damocles no longer worries him. He cares only for a world that exists with he and Ana, and their interactions ultimately oscillate from screwball contempt to real attraction.
The complexities of Stranger Than Fiction are worthy of their own analysis, but the film’s simplicities and stark honesty about emotion are its strengths. In possibly my favorite cinematic music cue of all time, Harold begins to tentatively play Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World” on the guitar, as he sits on Ana’s couch while she does the dishes. The little performance contains fear and courage, passion and desire. Ana walks over and sits beside him as he plays. The two embrace passionately as the original track roars, and they momentarily pause to look each other in the eye. Before Harold can speak, Ana says, “I know, I want you too.” And we get lost in that whole wide world.
Kyle Turner (@tylekurner) is a freelance film critic and writer. He’s also the assistant editor of Movie Mezzanine and began writing on the Internet in 2007 with his blog The Movie Scene. Since then, Kyle has contributed to TheBlackMaria.org, Film School Rejects, Under the Radar and IndieWire’s /Bent. He is studying cinema at the University of Hartford in Connecticut and relieved to know that he’s not a golem.