It’s hard to watch Stranger Than Fiction and not be reminded of Charlie Kaufman’s films. From its likeness to Being John Malkovich to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Stanger Than Fiction has Kaufman’s fingerprints all over it. Except Kaufman didn’t write it and that’s the movie’s greatest flaw. Stranger Than Fiction is a copycat Charlie Kaufman movie that actually almost pulls off being a Charlie Kaufman movie, except it lacks Kaufman’s cleverness and wit.
From my opening statement, it may appear I disliked the film, which is not entirely the case. I admired much of the movie and enjoyed it overall, but its unoriginality and contrived plotlines bog the film down. There’s plenty to appreciate about Stranger Than Fiction but also plenty to criticize as well.
The film is about Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), an IRS agent living a dull and ordinary life. He keeps everything organized and tidy, he’s keen with numbers, and is a slave to time, keeping track of his wristwatch to monitor his work.
Crick’s life, however, soon diverts from its course when he hears a voice ringing in his head narrating his every actions. That voice belongs to Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), an author currently writing a story whose main character is named Harold Crick. Everything she writes happens to Harold, be him brushing his teeth or fantasizing about a bakery shop owner (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Harold soon discovers from the voice that he would die soon, causing him to panic.
By now, it is easy to identify Kaufman’s influence on writer Zach Helm’s script. Harold is, in a sense, a Kaufman character as droll as Joel from Eternal Sunshine or John Cusack’s puppeteer in Being John Malkovich. Eiffel’s narration also is out of Kaufman’s book; it’s not too different than the portal to John Malkovich’s brain or the duplicacy in Adaptation.
So the movie isn’t original. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will be bad. Even a Charlie Kaufman rip-off is better than a majority of films that come out today. But director Marc Forster can’t pull off the Kaufman-esque elements in the movie. There are creative ideas worthy of the Kaufman brand, but Stranger Than Fiction takes up a series of clichés the famed screenwriter would never add in his stories. Harold soon develops a relationship with the baker, and tries to do everything he pushed away in his life. Many of the characters’ actions and decisions felt unreal, mostly coming from a literary professor played by Dustin Hoffman who attempts to assist Harold in his plight. The ending as well tanks the film, ending the movie on the wrong note.
Yet despite its flaws, Starnger Than Fiction succeeds through Will Ferrell’s performance. I am a fan of Ferrell, though I enjoy his Saturday Night Live work much more than his movies, and he is surprisingly restrained as Harold. Ferrell stands as the best reason to see the movie and holds the film up despite its sloppy storytelling.
Stranger Than Fiction is a mixed bag. Besides Ferrell’s performance, there’s nothing noteworthy about the film and feels like a waste of potential. It’s not a bad movie, but it could have been so much more.