I’ll confess, I haven’t ever actually sat down and watched a Will Ferrell movie before. Of course, I view this not so much as a failing on my part as a movie watcher, but more a failing on the part of Will Ferrell. There are only a handful of his movies where I haven’t been immediately repulsed by the trailer (and I don’t subscribe to the theory that it’s unfair to judge a movie by the trailer; that’s what the trailer is for.) He stars in a lot of movies where the premise is either obnoxious or really stupid, and in either case, I’m not interested. Most of his films seem to be some flavor of cringe comedy, and I’ve mentioned my dislike of the genre before. Plus, having seen him on Saturday Night Live, I felt that he works better as a straight man rather than a comedic lead; when he’s expected to carry the comedy, his timing seems off and he tends to over-emote. Seeing this continue in his movie trailers just reinforced my disinclination to watch his films.
But I do try to not automatically dismiss a movie just because someone who is in it has been in movies I wasn’t inclined to watch, if the movie in question doesn’t appear like those other movies. After all, if Tom Hanks can progress from Bachelor Party to The Green Mile, I have to concede that Will Ferrell could be good in a movie that is more than just him being loud and obnoxious.
So, since Stranger Than Fiction had a premise that was both more interesting and more intelligent than most of Ferrell’s films, I decided to give it a chance. It’s only fair.
In Stranger Than Fiction, Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, a pathologically boring IRS auditor. He is fastidiously punctual, and obsessively dedicated to his routines. He habitually counts anything countable in his vicinity, and measures by sight anything measurable. He has no hobbies, and no ambitions, or at least none he’ll admit to initially. When he’s asked at one point if he has any friends, he immediately answers “no”, before remembering his co-worker Dave (Tony Hale), with whom he occasionally engages in small talk. He is… the least interesting man in the world.
There is a distinction between being good at math and being wholly devoted to it. This distinction is often referred to as “sanity”.
But evidently he is not so uninteresting as to be of no interest at all, because one morning he starts hearing a voice in his head. A voice that narrates his life, and seems to be guiding it, from commenting on his tooth-brushing technique to detailing his fantasies — fantasies which may not have even been in his head until then — about Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the baker he is auditing. Like anybody who starts hearing a strange voice, he first questions his sanity, and then tries to figure out where it’s coming from, who is “writing” his life, a question which takes on some urgency once the narrator adds the line “Little did he know that this simple seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death.”
Personally, rather than just shouting to the skies, I’d try to undo the act.
He recruits the help of a literature professor, Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) to help him track down his author, but the audience has already been shown the writer through the interweaving storyline. Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is a critically-acclaimed writer of slice-of-life tragedies, who has just been sent a writer’s assistant (Queen Latifah) from her publisher due to a case of writer’s block. Queen Latifah’s character doesn’t add much to the movie on her own, but she does serve as a way to let the audience know what Eiffel is thinking. She knows Harold has to die to complete the story, but hasn’t figured out how to kill him yet. Even as Harold tries to figure out who is writing his imminent death, Eiffel — a chain-smoker, a recluse, and a bit of a nervous wreck — is fantasizing about different ways to die, trying to figure out what would suit Harold’s story best. When Harold eventually succeeds in tracking her down, she actually handles the revelation more poorly than Harold does, wondering what it means for all of her prior books.
Nothing like the notion you may have written eight people to death to cause a little existential angst.
Stranger Than Fiction is an intelligent, thoughtful drama (with just a touch of comedy) and Will Ferrell gives a decent, if unimpressive, performance in the lead role. Really, none of the actors do a bad job, but only Emma Thompson gives a performance that really stands out in any way. Queen Latifah’s and Tony Hale’s characters are largely superfluous, being there only to provide the main characters with someone to talk to. Gyllenhaal’s Ana doesn’t stand out amongst all the other “manic pixie dream girls” in romantic comedies. Dustin Hoffman does a solid job, as always, but we’re not really meant to examine his character all that closely; like the writing assistant, he’s there to help move the plot, and nothing more. Only Thompson’s portrayal of a writer on the verge of being a basket-case makes any of the characters seem like more than set-pieces. But although the performances aren’t outstanding, neither are they bad, and the understated nature of the roles somehow suits a film where the characters are a bit flawed but are mostly just ordinary people. It would have been easy to spin this into another wacky Will Ferrell vehicle, but instead it keeps everything low-key, and is a much better film for it.