Stranger Than Fiction

Writing’s The Key In This High-Concept Comedy

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
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For the most part, people go to the movies to see their favorite stars. (“Tom Cruise? I am so there!”) Occasionally, people are attracted to the director of a particular project. (“Michael Bay? I love Michael Bay!”) Rarely, if ever, do moviegoers hunt down the work of a specific writer. (“Ben Hecht? That boy could work a typewriter like nobody’s business!”) That’s a real shame. After all, it’s the writer who has the most fundamental impact on a film.

If people did chase writers as fervently as they chased actors, then Zach Helm would be on the verge of tabloid superstardom. Never heard of him? Of course you haven’t. But
Variety named him one its “10 Writers to Watch.” Esquire placed him among the magazine’s “Best & Brightest” of 2004. Fade In magazine singled him out as one of the “100 People to Know in Hollywood” in 2004 and 2005. Now you’ve got an opportunity to see what all the buzz is about. Helm’s first film, Stranger Than Fiction, is about to hit theaters.

Patrons who line up outside the movie theater waiting to see star Will Ferrell rip off all his clothes and run around screaming in funny voices are going to be disappointed. Those searching for one of the wittiest, wisest films of 2006, however, are in for a treat.

Ferrell, playing completely against type, is the film’s straight man. Harold Crick is a rigid, terminally unhappy wage slave who works at the IRS. His head is filled with figures and his life is so predictable that the number of brushstrokes he uses to clean his teeth never varies. One day, though, a voice begins to crowd out the numbers in his head. This voice, belonging to a well-spoken Englishwoman, seems to be narrating Harold’s dull life. She talks about the number of brushstrokes he uses to clean his teeth. She talks about the feud he’s having with his wristwatch. She talks about the deep, empty sound the manila envelopes at Harold’s work make. … Oh, and she mentions that he’s going to die very soon.

It is this last bit of information that alerts Harold he may have gone over the deep end. A psychiatrist (Linda Hunt) tries to convince him he’s schizophrenic. But Harold is sure he’s perfectly sane. What he believes is that he’s trapped inside someone else’s story, and that an unknown omniscient narrator is intent on killing him. Hoping for some literary form of salvation, our protagonist hunts up a savvy college professor (Dustin Hoffman). The professor comes up with a simple solution: Find out what kind of story you’re in. If it’s a tragedy, you’re doomed. But if it’s a comedy, you stand a good chance of surviving.

Desperate to save his miserable skin, Harold tries to master his own destiny by shaping his story into a romantic comedy. All he’s got to do is break character and fall in love with the attractive yet rebellious baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) he’s been assigned to audit. Granted, falling in love with Maggie Gyllenhaal isn’t the toughest assignment on the planet, but as Harold’s story continues to unfold, it becomes apparent he is not the one in charge of his destiny.

In fact, by some strange twist of fate, reclusive author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is the one actually penning this story. Unfortunately (or fortunately, if you’re the real Harold Crick), she’s suffering from a case of writer’s block and can’t figure out a way to bump off her main character. Can Harold come up with a solution to this existential mind-bender before Kay finds her inspiration?

As you can probably guess,
Stranger Than Fiction isn’t your ordinary romantic comedy. In fact, it fits into the same strange-but-magical category as films like The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind . It’s heady, literate and may require slightly more than a high school education to appreciate. In other words, if you thought Borat was the funniest movie ever made, this probably isn’t the film for you.

Ferrell is a revelation, playing the entire thing straight and managing to generate fantastic sympathy for his sad-sack hero. It’s, quite simply, the best role he’s ever had. The rest of the cast is equally fabulous, with Hoffman gleefully underplaying his book-loving character, Thompson working herself into a neurotic knot as the death-obsessed writer and Gyllenhaal blooming beautifully as the tattooed foodie. Director Marc Forster (
Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland ) gives them all a wonderful world to play in, aping the graphics-filled stylings of Fight Club and creating an atmosphere of playful anything-goes fantasy. In the end, though, it is Helm’s Oscar-worthy script that carries the day, delivering smart laughs, offbeat romance and a stop-and-make-you-think rumination on controlling one’s own future. No question about it: Stranger Than Fiction is one of this year’s best.
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