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Light and frothy

By Mark Butterworth
web posted November 20, 2006

Stranger than Fiction

Stranger than FictionAre you a character in a novel that someone else is writing? Harold Crick is. But he's also a character in a movie someone else wrote and directed. He's also played by Will Ferrell in an understated but effective manner in this clever comedy-romance which is also a tad precious.

A novelist, Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is writing a book featuring a dull IRS agent, the aforesaid Crick, who has lived a life of devoted routine for twelve years. He counts the number of strokes he uses to brush his teeth, the number of steps it takes to walk to the bus. He is a wiz at multiplying large numbers instantly.

Harold Crick, though, is a literary character, the kind you only meet in a book or movie. No one lives a life with the kind of numbing regularity he does except in fiction.

As an IRS agent, Harold investigates Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a young baker who has not been paying all the taxes she owes. Ms. Pascal has an ornate multi colored tattoo on her upper right arm, and spouts a bunch of silly nonsense about not paying the taxes which go to war, the military and so forth. She, too, is the sort of character you only meet in a novel since no one running a bakery is likely to avoid paying all the taxes they owe since the result would be to put oneself out of business.

In the course of his day, Harold begins to hear a voice. He looks around. No one is there. The voice talks about what he is doing moment to moment and what he's thinking or feeling. Harold gets spooked. He tells a co-worker he is being followed by a woman's voice. She's narrating. He seeks help. Is told he's schizophrenic. He denies it. He claims he's a character in a story. Maybe he ought to see a literature professor instead?

He goes and meets with Prof. Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) who becomes his angel/guide/mentor/advisor. Together they try to determine if he's in a comedy or tragedy, and who the author is.

Then he hears the author mention that he's going to die. He is told, "Harold, you don't control your fate." The Prof. advises him that it's "Your life. Go make it the one you always wanted."

The movie is an extended Aesop's Fable as Harold discovers life -- how to live it. He pursues the disdainful Ms. Pascal. He takes up the guitar. Since he has suddenly become aware he will die, he is finally awake to living, but he doesn't want to die and must find a way to reach the author and get her to alter her book's plan.

Kay Eiffel, meanwhile, is having her own problem. She has writer's block. She can't figure out how to kill her main character. She is an eccentric chain smoker.

The movie strikes a nice balance of sweetness and light with poignancy. The carpe diem allegory is obvious, and that's a slight detraction in an otherwise sincere comedy.

There is one matter I wished the movie took a longer look at and that's the situation where the author, Eiffel, wonders about the omnipotence of a writer who plays God with her characters. Does an artist have a responsibility to her fictional characters or is she free to do whatever she pleases in a story? The idea that there may be a moral dimension to how one handles the material in an art work is worth asking.

Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway posed the question of whether art is worth more than a human life. Is it better for someone to die than have Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel perish? Should the actress be killed before she ruins the writer's play?

Does Harold Crick have to die to satisfy the requirements of Ms. Eiffel's narrative?

The other main theme -- am I a character in someone else's dream? -- never gets more than a superficial glance (which is true about everything in this movie). But the truth is that anyone who hasn't got an actual raison d'etre or clear assurance of personal autonomy is at a loss to place himself in a greater scheme of things.

The movie's answer to not knowing if one is entirely at the mercy of fate out of one's control is to distract oneself by living more intensely or intently. How does that exactly help?

Nevertheless, this is a nice movie and it is a pleasure to see a nice movie every once in a while instead of so much else that is not nice.

For a movie as corny and obvious as It's A Wonderful Life, it's a wonder that no other nice movies come as close in power. The recent Adam Sandler's Click attempted a similar thing as Stranger than Fiction as an allegorical lesson about missing the forest for the trees, but it, too, failed to deliver as satisfying a story.

I believe the reason is that Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey is a man who really experiences a deep sense of failure, loss, and meaninglessness. He has a life he never really wanted, but got stuck with. He's done his best to endure it, but it gnaws at him and he aches for what never was but could have been. He is closer to Everyman than either Harold Crick or Sandler's Michael Newman.

If Stranger than Fiction could have approached as powerful a sense of character in Harold Crick as in George Bailey, it would have stirred the soul quite a bit more deeply. But as a light, clever, and superficial comedy-romance, the movie works as well as it intended to. ESR

(c) Mark Butterworth


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