In STRANGER THAN FICTION, Will Ferrell bravely sets aside the manic side of his personna in favor of that personna’s innate sweetness. It’s a bold move and one that is not without charm, but it’s also one that should have been better served than it is by a script that takes far too long to get to the point, and by direction that shows a fine style but not of pacing.
Ferrell is Harold Crick, an IRS auditor obsessed with numbers, routine, and the color beige. Beige, with a few daring dashes of gray, best describes the essence of his life. His watch, on the other hand, no pun intended, is a more complex entity. This information is provided courtesy of the narration that Harold will soon be able to hear, too, commenting on his life, thoughts, and in a particularly traumatic moment for Harold, his impending death. Before that, though, the narrator, female and with a British accent, goes into detail about the watch’s sartorial opinions and the way it enjoys the wind rushing against its face. It’s a motif that will come up again when said narrator, Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), finally makes her appearance on the ledge of a very tall building with the wind whipping her face as she imagines what it would be like to plummet to the pavement below. She’s interrupted by Penny Escher (Queen Latifah), the new unflappable and unwelcome assistant hired by Eiffel’s publisher to deal with the writer’s block that’s cramped her style for a decade.
Crick has his own problems arising from hearing a voice narrating his life, but never answering him when he talks back. It results in a quick trip to the IRS’ therapist, who wants him to take a vacation, a session with a psychiatrist who wants to put him on medication, and visit to Julius Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), a professor of English literature who is about to dismiss him, but is fascinated enough that the narration included the phrase “little did he know” to take Harold and his narrator on. In quick succession, he rules out that Harold is Hamlet, a golem, or a host of other imaginary characters and offers advice on how to get around his predestination.
Meanwhile at work, a sympathetic co-worker, knowing of Crick’s auditory difficulties, offers to take the audit of a securities trader and let Crick have the simpler one involving a baker. It may have seemed simpler, but it becomes complicated in the person of Anna Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a yeasty revolutionary who has withheld precisely 78 percent of her taxes as a protest against the military-industrial complex. She also, accompanied by Eiffel’s lascivious narration, sets a surge of unexpected hormones loose in Crick.
The dialogue is erudite and nimble, the characters are disarming, and Ferrell brings the same seriousness to hearing a voice that he displays with all his better work. Playing low-key underscores rather than undermines Crick’s plight so that even as the story builds into a delicious surrealism, there is a pathos to this everyman on the way to meet eternity.
There is much here that is delightful to ponder, surnames full of portent, Thompson’s wild-eyed neurosis as she trolls an emergency room in search of interesting ways to bump off Harold, Queen Latifah’s serenity in the face of improbability and chaos from all comers, Hoffman’s puckish professor whose ability to separate the flow of life from plot progression is iffy, Gyllenhaal’s tough cookie with a soft chewy center. For all the fine thespianism at work here, the best points to ponder are the theological ones and their implications with Eiffel as a disengaged God, Hilbert as the priest interpreting her will, and Crick as part of the divine creation coming to terms with the price of existence being mortality. Here is a mortal who actually gets to call god to task for what she’s planned for him. Of course he does it politely.
STRANGER THAN FICTION as a concept has the delicacy of spun sugar, and as a film has the execution of a battering ram. Director Marc Foster, who wowed with MONSTER’S BALL and FINDING NEVERLAND never quite finds the groove to make this work, or a way to fix a distinctly saggy middle act. Still, for all its faults, it blazes new trails in mixing popular entertainment and philosophy, not to mention metaphysics, with enough panache to make it all seem eminently sensible. That makes it worth checking out.