Stranger Than Fiction

Toronto World Premiere

After the nonsensical supernatural “Stay,” the gifted Marc Forster is back on terra firma with “Stranger Than Fiction,” an existential yet deeply heartfelt serio-comedy about creators and their responsibility to their characters, life and death, and even taxes (yes IRS taxes), that represents his best, most mature work to date.

With a title that derives its inspiration from the great folklorist Mark Twain (“Truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn't”), the new movie belongs to the same genre of innovative American films such as “The Truman Show,” and particularly the Charlie Kaufman-Spike Jonze's collaborations, “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” all meta-narrative and meta-cinema works that pushed the boundaries of storytelling in American film.

Like those post-modern, self-reflexive, self-conscious, and playful works, “Stranger Than Fiction” asks the viewers to participate actively in the actual making of the movie. Writer Zach Helm (a major talent to watch) takes a story-telling device and makes it the story itself, inviting the audience to emotionally participate not only in the story being written, but also in how the story is being written. In the process, the filmmakers deconstruct the very issues of creativity, how, in fact, works of art, literature, and film assume the shape they have, and also the tenuous (previously unexplored) relationship between creators and their creations.

Though he has made only five features, auteurist critics should be able to detect consistent thematic concerns in Forster's work, from the experimental indie “Everything Put Together” through the Oscar-winning Monster's Ball, “Finding Neverland,” “Stay,” and now “Stranger Than Fiction.” All of these films concern issues of identity, the fine line between fiction and reality, the nature of truth and illusion, and the Capraesque notion of taking one's life as mundane as it might seem and living it to the fullest–before it's too late.

World-premiering at the Toronto Film Festival, “Stranger than Fiction” will be released by Columbia November 10, in time for the holidays season (with which the feature is suitable thematically) as well as for the Oscar season. Though comedies are among the least favorite genres among Academy voters, “Stranger Than Fiction” should be considered seriously due to its innovations, and pedigree of Forster and his cast, including Will Ferrell in his most accomplished performance to date, the always reliable Emma Thompson, who has not had such a meaty and flashy role in years, and the magical Maggie Gyllenhaal, as Ferrell's love interest.

One morning, a seemingly average and solitary IRS agent named Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) begins to hear a female voice narrating his every action, thought, and feeling in alarmingly precise detail. Harold's carefully life is turned upside down by a narration that only he can hear. When the voice declares that Harold is facing imminent death, he realizes that he must find out who is writing his story and persuade her to change the ending.

The story gains momentum from this race against time, as well as social poignancy from the notion of taking a fuller control and making the most of one's life of quiet desperation. In its fantastical (from fantasy) and fabulist (from fable) elements, “Stranger Than Fiction” recalls Frank Capra's 1946 masterpiece, “It's a Wonderful Life,” in which Jimmy Stewart tries to imagine life without him, exceptand it's a big differencethat Stewart needs the guidance and interference of God's angels, whereas Ferrell's Harold is determined to do it himself, albeit with some human help.

In an ingenious stroke, scripter Helm introduces “the voice” in Harold's head, which turns out to be the once celebrated, but now nearly forgotten, novelist Karen “Kay” Eiffel (Emma Thompson), who is struggling to find an ending for what might be her best work. Though depicted as hysterical and borderline insane, Helm deserves credits for not resorting to Hollywood clichs about writers and creative blocks. Kay is not an all-knowing god-like writer with a clay tablet, but a blocked, irascible, self-destructive, chain-smoking writer, still working with a buffered IBM Selectric!

Kay comes across as a woman who has given up on her physical appearance and social life (no men and no friends in her life). Her only communication with the outside world is through Penny Escher (a terrifically subdued and elegant Queen Latifah), the hard-nosed assistant Kay's publisher had sent to force Kay to finish her novel, i.e., finish off Harold Crick.

But figuring out a way to kill her protagonist presents Kay's biggest remaining challenge, particularly after realizing that Harold Crick is flesh-and-blood, a man who's inexplicably aware of Kay's words and her plans for him.

Desperate to take control of his destiny and avoid an untimely demise, Harold seeks help from literary theorist Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman, who also appeared in “Finding Neverland”). Hilbert suggests that Harold might be able to change his fate by turning his story from a tragedy into a comedy. In this subplot, Helm and Forster succeed in illuminating the subjective and objective definitions of what's considered to be comic and tragic, in art as well as in real life, in a way that Woody Allen failed in “Melinda and Melinda,” in which he presented two version of the same woman, and which incidentally starred Will Ferrell and Radha Mitchell, an actress discovered by Forster in “Everything Put Together”).

In a number of sessions, which are among the weakest in the film since they have to do with exposition of literature, thus involving more lecturing than real drama, professor Hilbert suggests that Harold try to follow one of comedy's most basic formulas: a love story between two people, both social misfits, who hate each other.

Enters the extraordinary versatile Maggie Gyllenhaal (whose range is limitless and can do anything, including sexy, romantic comedy), a free spirited baker named Ana Pascal. Effortlessly switching tones, “Stranger Than Fiction” turns into an original romantic comedy (only a writer like Helm can think of love between a tax accountant and a baker) with wonderfully credible scenes between Ferrell and Gyllenhaal, who show strong chemistry in and out of bed.

As middle-aged (and virginal) Harold experiences true love for the first time in his life, he becomes convinced that he has escaped his fate, since his story seems to be taking on all the trappings of a comedy, in which he will notand cannotdie.

Emphasis is on seems, because Harold is unaware he is still cast and entrapped in a tragedy, and that in a Kay Eiffel tragedy, the lead characters always dies at exactly the moment they have the most to live. Drawing on her eloquent and melodic voice, Thompson delivers a brillaint monologue that recites the varied forms of death of the protagonists in her previous novels…

In the end (which cannot be disclosed here), the filmmakers find intriguing ways to congregate all their characters together, Kay meets with Professor Hilbert and Harold meets Kay. In the final, exhilarating reel, everything comes together (to borrow the title of Forster's first feature) and Harold and Kay find themselves in unexplored territory, in which each must weigh the value of a single human existence, against what might be just an immortal work of art.

What makes the movie works on a number of levels is that, in the midst of Harold's unusual predicament (at one point, his house is demolished while he's inside) there's is a hilarious and poignant comedic inquiry into how as human we try to shape our reality. “Stranger Than Fiction” is a moral fable, a wake-up call for all of us dormant human beings, represented by Harold, an “Everyman” who's been asleep for most of his life and suddenly wakes up to realize he has very little time left and that he has to do something we all would like to do–change our story.

The movie touches on a universal fantasy, the notion that we have a narrator in our lives, inner voices in our heads that tell us what to do and how to be. What Harlod discovers in the midst of these incredible events is how to escape all that and really begin to enjoy his existence.

There's something poetic in the understanding of one's place in the universe and the meaning of one's life, made all the more dramatic, when such understanding occurs only days before that life ends. Harold is a man who “finds” his life just seconds before he's about to lose it.

All of the characters, including Harold's wristwatch, end up doing little but significant things to help save one another, underlying the theme that the people and things we take most for granted are often the ones that make life worth living and actually keep us alive.

Endnote: puzzles and clues

A devotee of riddles and puzzles, Zach Helm has lined the script with subtle cues and twists. The street names, business names, and the characters' last names–Crick, Pascal, Eiffel, Escher, Baneker, Kronecker, Cayly–are all mathematicians who have focused on the innate order of things. There is even a playful salute to mathematician David Hilbert and the 23 questions he put forth at the 1900 International Congress of Mathematicians.