Updated: Jul 4
Released Nov 10, 2006.
Starring Will Ferrel
Directed by Marc Foster
Written by Zach Helm
There's a traditional love story buried deep in the foundation of this movie. A strait-laced IRS agent, named Harold Crick, has to audit a beautiful free-spirited baker named Ana Pascal. As his audit continues, she helps him relax. He helps her pass the audit. By the end of the movie, they fall in love and grow as people. This movie, all by itself, would be compelling. But in Stranger Than Fiction, it's only one subplot in a well-oiled, densely packed narrative.
During the opening of the film, we get a glimpse into Harolds head, an overpowered brain that filters the world by cataloguing each step taken in a mental digital readout. While brushing his teeth, he counts brush strokes. He ties his tie in a single Windsor knot instead of a double, saving up to forty-three seconds in the process. His is a life timed precisely. Eating alone. Living alone. As he goes about his day, the most boring man alive is narrated by a British woman's voice, accurately and with a better vocabulary. The fourth wall begins to fall apart around him, and Harold Crick hears a voice describe his movements, as if God were providing a running audio commentary. She knows he counts brush strokes. The voice brings attention to squeaking sound of his stiff leather shoes against the asphalt while he runs for the bus. In a moment of overpowered analysis, he stops and considers his shoes. The noise they make. The number of times he's taken those same steps.
After work, while waiting for the bus home, he hears, "Little did he know that the seemingly innocuous act of setting his watch would result in his imminent death." Harold then returns to his apartment, terrified and desperate. He starts destroying his mundane belongings, hoping to trigger the narrating voice of God to give answers. Comfort. But sadly, the plot has shifted away from him. God's attention and narration is elsewhere. As his desperation grows, he screams, "Say something!" directly into the camera, locking eyes with the viewer. The character of Harold Crick is from an alternate reality that serves at the pleasure of the audience. But he's seen through the looking glass. The fourth wall has imploded completely, and his desperate eyes cry out to the audience with a plea for existence.
Harold Crick soon realizes he's a character in a narrative. After consulting with a literature professor, he decides to sit on his couch and do nothing. This will tell if Harold is driving the narrative, or the plot. But, days into Harold's staycation, a wrecking ball bursts through his wall. The idea of a man who knows he's a character in a novel and is hiding out from the plot in his apartment is a piece of brilliance. His apartment getting destroyed by a mechanical monster is the plot literally coming to find him, and this is confirmed when the professor says, "Harold, you don't control your fate." The conflict is between a character in a book and the concept of plot itself. It's man versus God on its most conceptual level.
Soon, the narrator is reveled, atop a skyscraper. She's overlooking the city, studying its people. There's a moment of quiet contemplation, a drag on a cigarette. The smoke gently exhaling as determination washes over her face. She takes a step and plummets off the building. Luckily, she returns back inside an apartment like a supernatural force. Her name is Karen Eiffel. She's the best-selling author of several tragedies, specializing in killing her noble but mundane characters in bleak ways. Her current work in progress is titled, "Death and Taxes," about a boring IRS agent. However, she's having writers block, and the publisher has sent an assistant named Penny to help. Their introduction showcases both characters dialogue while moving the plot forward. Each line of dialogue provides exposition and develops their characters simultaneously.
Karen Eiffel: "What do you think about leaping off a building?"
Penny: "I don't think about leaping off a building. I try to think about nice things."
Karen Eiffel: "They say that it's not the fall that kills you."
Penny: "I'm sure it doesn't help."
This one exchange has a world of depth to it. Karen Eiffel imagines the wind on her face as the pavement rushes up towards her. Penny lives her life grounded in the real world, a well-dressed professional who is all business. But now, her business is sitting in the rain, sneaking into emergency rooms and buying nicotine patches for a melancholic author as she thinks of ways to kill Harold Crick. By the end of the first act of this densely perfect movie, a dull character in a novel is experiencing the implosion of the fourth wall, while experiencing love as the God of his universe struggles to find the most interesting way to kill him. But to her, he's fictional. That strange conflict, at times both man versus man AND man versus God, calls into question what sort of power Karen Eiffel holds on this universe. There are background characters in the story. A woman who becomes a bus driver. A small boy who rides his bike around the city. Both are recurring extras in Harold's life. Both are recurring extra's in Karen Eiffel's murder fantasies as well. Both play a central part in Harold's finale.
It's a finale of Karen's creation. She's figured out how to kill Harold Crick. But she doesn't know this man exists. Karen doesn't realize the power she holds. Harold Crick goes to see her. It's a man coming to God asking for more time, only God forgot the man was real. But it's too late. The ending has been written, in pen and paper. It becomes stone once she types it out. However, the choice is left with Harold. He is given the pen and paper copy to read, and along with-it foresight into his own death. A noble death, saving the little boy from a bus. Harold accepts his fate and is grateful to have a death that means something. So, he wraps up his life, spends another quiet night with the woman of his dreams, and willingly sacrifices his life.
Thankfully, Harold's God is merciful. She decides that a man who would walk in front of a bus to save a little boy is the sort of man that should stay alive. She changes the ending to where he lives. It's not her best work. But it's an ending that she, and Harold, can live with.