'Stranger than fiction' is a film created from observations of life, death and literature. Yes, literature. The film feels like it is having fun, not just with the rules of cinema, but also with the rules of storytelling in the conventional sense. The scene that best illustrates this is the one where IRS agent Harold Crick (Will Ferrell, in what can only be described as his 'Truman show' role) realizes that whatever he does might bring him closer to death, so he decides to do nothing. He just sits in his house and watches television. Everything seems accordingly to plan, till his apartment is hit by a demolition crew tearing down the building. The film never tells this to us, but the appearance of a demolition crew hints at the planting of a deus ex machina into the story to move it forward, or else the film would just end with Harold doing nothing.
Harold is immersed into this situation when he wakes up one day to find that he can very clearly hear a woman's voice in his head, who is able to explain, with 'better vocabulary' he says, every little act that he performs. Brushing his teeth, tying his Windsor knot, waiting for the bus, he hears it all with minor, inexplicable irritation. This is all fine by him, till she mentions in one of her monologues to us, the audience, and Harold, about his 'imminent death'. Panic-stricken, confused and generally unable to handle the situation, he meets a psychiatrist, who asks him to visit a Literature professor for guidance. Professor Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) then tries to determine, through a process of elimination, whether Harold's life is a comedy or a tragedy, in an attempt to pinpoint who the author might be.
As playful and irreverent as it sounds, 'Stranger than fiction' hides underneath the surface a quality of writing that is inventive and endearing. In trying to find out if his life really is a tragedy or a comedy, Harold re-visits Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the charming bakery girl who he is auditing and who, he points out, has missed a few of her tax returns. It doesn't matter what his life is like at this point, because he clearly doesn't seem to be in control of it. Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is. She of course is the narrator and the author of his life, or so it would seem to him. Her predicament, and the thrust that drives the story forward from this point, is her inability to devise a scheme to kill off Crick properly. He therefore becomes her writers block. The premise, part fantasy which you either accept or don't, and part lamentation on fate and the power of a higher being over our lives, finds enough time to be many other things as well, among them a tender love story, a witty comedy, and yes, even a tragedy of sorts.
The director, Marc Forster, has quickly and steadily built a reputation for creating artsy spins on established storylines that feel both comfortable in their familiarity and innovative in their approach. His choices of projects so far have been as diverse as they have been stimulating to watch, partly due to his perpetual ability to never meander his work with conventional visual techniques. The film has a neat, tidy end, and despite flirting with darker territory, remains true to the overall tone of the story. In doing so, it also celebrates the joys of writing and sometimes the frustrations of being unable to finish what you started. I've complained in the past about movies based on books that follow their source material too closely (Harry Potter for example…), but here is a movie that is also its own book and doesn't choose to follow it in the end. That is what makes it so good! - Faizan Rashid