Stranger Than Fiction quivers in the shadow of much greater work. It is one of these potentially fascinating meta-narratives, the story of a man (Will Ferrell) who one days hears a voice (Emma Thompson) narrating his life. The voice is Karen Eiffel, a distinguished author, and the man is Harold Crick, the hero of her upcoming novel. The two occupy the same world, even though one is the creation of the other.
The clearest influence here is 2002’s Adaptation. Now, that was a fascinating meta-narrative. It documented its own creation by making real-life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman the main character. A third of the way through, Kaufman the character begins writing the opening scene of Adaptation—exactly as we saw it at the beginning of the first reel. Stranger Than Fiction wants to be similarly clever. It fails. It shamelessly steals bits and pieces from a dozen other movies, ranging by my count from I Heart Huckabees to Constantine (that Keanu Reeves vehicle you didn’t see) to the animated Anastasia. At every turn, Stranger Than Fiction is reminiscent of something else, but wholly inferior.
Take, for example, Dustin Hoffman. In I Heart Huckabees, he played an existentialist detective who investigated coincidences. Just writing that makes me smile. Hoffman got the part exactly right. He didn’t wink at the camera: He was perfectly deadpan as a man who took hilarious things completely seriously. Stranger Than Fiction has him doing the same shtick, but this time around it feels too self-aware. Hoffman is again oblivious, but his gags look choreographed. Gags should never, ever look choreographed.
Stranger Than Fiction doesn’t seem terribly concerned with such rules. In fact, it doesn’t seem to follow any rules at all. That’s another rookie mistake. Stories have no obligation to bear any resemblance to reality, but they have an immutable obligation to operate within the confines of their own reality. In this particular reality, when novelist Karen Eiffel scribbles down notes about Harold, they don’t affect the events of his life, but the moment she types a draft of her story, Harold notices its impact. When she types that the phone rang, it rings and it will not ring again until she types that it does. There’s a rule.
Yet, for most of the movie, Eiffel is suffering from severe writers’ block. The publisher sends her an assistant (Queen Latifah in a bland bit part) to push her along. Eiffel is not making progress. But Harold is. He hears his life narrated by Eiffel even as Eiffel is nowhere near her typewriter. Why bother setting up the rule of the magic typewriter if the vast majority of the plot violates that rule?
Thompson does her best under the circumstances. Her character is weary and depressed. She has killed every single protagonist she has ever written, but now she cannot figure out how to kill Harold. (And there is the complication of Harold not wanting to die). But Thompson cannot cover up her weak lines. Eiffel is supposed to be a revered literary giant. The narration she reads, though, will never appear in any work of literature that’s worth reading. It is merely throwaway voiceover, furthering the plot without depth or wit.
Sadly, a lot of Stranger Than Fiction is throwaway. Maggie Gyllenhaal shows up as Harold’s love interest, but the screenplay has absolutely nothing in store for her. She is unaware that Harold’s life is narrated. She is unaware that Harold is facing an existential crisis. She is unaware of everything that makes the movie in any way clever or promising. Despite the charm and warmth that Gyllenhaal brings to most of her work, she sits on the sidelines in a lot of unnecessary scenes as Harold’s extraneous love interest.
As for Harold, well, Will Ferrell tries hard. He wants to be convincing and loveable. He wants to elevate the material to the level of its intelligent premise. However, there is very little that he, or anyone, no matter how earnest, can do. He is stuck in a movie that overplanned its gags and severely misunderstood its story.
I like meta-narratives as much as the next guy. But Stranger Than Fiction is just a creaky, unoriginal movie in shiny, post-modern packaging.