Stranger than Fiction is ten years old this year. It’s not a movie for which many people will celebrate an anniversary. There aren’t 1200 lists, facts, and behind the scenes nuggets on the Internet devoted to the film. It was neither a huge bomb at the box office, nor a hit. It just was and what it was was an exceptional film we don’t talk about nearly enough.
Strange than Fiction is about love. It’s about free will. About fate. And literary theory. It’s about comedy, and it’s about tragedy. And it’s about Bavarian Crème Cookies. It’s smart, without being intellectual. It’s funny, though not hilarious. Droll, but not too self-aware. And it’s a fucking beautiful film. It’s bittersweet and achy and exhilarating and romantic and absorbing and hopeful and optimistic and, truly, a remarkable little movie that more people should watch.
Above all, Stranger than Fiction is kind. It’s kind to its characters and kind to its audience, though it’s just smart enough that it’s never earnest. There isn’t the tiniest dose of cynicism in the film, and director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Monster’s Ball) knows that any film worth its salt is more than just a whimsical conceit and Will Ferrell, which is why Fiction isn’t really about a man who is a character in his own life. It’s about how that man, Harold Crick — an IRS Agent who experiences every second of his life embedded in routine — breaks free from monotony thanks to a narrator that speaks to him. If we were all to have our daily lives read back to us as we experience them, we’d also probably realize the absurdity of our own routines and acknowledge that the comfort we find in monotony is just a lazy excuse to avoid really living.
Anyway, Harold Crick wakes up one morning and starts to hear a voice narrating his life. As you might imagine, this is disconcerting, particularly for someone who counts stairs, has an Asperger’s-like awareness of numbers, and whose life revolves around such rigorous planning that he gets to his bus stop each morning only seconds before the bus arrives. But the real question for Crick becomes this: Is the narrator, Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), who is writing the book of Crick’s life, merely transcribing the events (each a product, then, of his free will) or is she actually determining them in the pages of her book, Death and Taxes (determinism). Or, maybe, it’s a bit of both (compatibilism).
Once Crick dismisses the idea of schizophrenia, he seeks out a literary theorist, Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) who helps Crick — by analyzing his experiences — to determine what kind of book he may have found himself in, a comedy or a tragedy. Most of those events involve Crick’s sudden fondness for Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a socialist baker who is being audited for her refusal to pay the percentage of taxes she owes to the government that would go to defense and military spending. Ana’s loathing for Crick (“Get bent, tax man!”) initially suggests tragedy, but there is an underlying affection in her hatred (comedy!). However, the crux of the narrative centers around the fact that one of Eiffel’s pronouncements foreshadows Crick’s “imminent demise.”
Obviously, Crick doesn’t want to die — particularly as his life becomes increasingly eventful — and his efforts to track down the narrator occur just as he’s discovering a new appreciation for life and a desire to do the things he’s always wanted to do. It’s cliché as hell. But, it works.
Look: Stranger than Fiction is neither the best, the funniest, nor the most important movie of the 21st century, but I think about it a lot. I think about that song that Ferrell plays for Maggie Gyllenhaal, and I think about what a sweet, wonderful scene that is, and then I think about watching Stranger than Fiction again.