(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Movie: Stranger Than Fiction
Where You Can Stream It: Netflix
The Pitch: What happens when a man suddenly starts to hear someone narrating his life as if he were the main character in a story? That’s exactly what happens to IRS auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), and as if hearing a female voice describing everything he was doing wasn’t bad enough, she’s also made him out to be an ill-fated protagonist, and his death is imminent. It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase, “There are only two things certain in life: death and taxes.”
Why It’s Essential Viewing: Will Ferrell is best known for his raucously hilarious comedic roles in Step Brothers, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and other comedies. But in 2006, Stranger Than Fiction saw Ferrell mix some of his comedic antics with an outstanding dramatic performance that should have earned him an Academy Award nomination.
Half of Will Ferrell’s performance as Harold Crick entails some of the great comedy that we know he pulls off magnificently, but he does it in a much more reserved fashion. Ferrell’s reaction to the sudden appearance of a female voice narrating his life is undoubtedly funny, but he doesn’t ham it up. Instead, he takes the actor’s route by reacting to this phenomenon as realistically as possible, and as an IRS auditor, he does so in an especially analytical way, treating it as a problem to be solved, a situation to be audited.
As Harold slowly tries to figure out how to confront this issue, he reaches out to literary scholar Professor Jules Hilbert, a supporting turn executed perfectly by Dustin Hoffman. The professor’s approach is one of curiosity and education, seemingly hoping to learn something from this debacle and never hesitating to believe Crick’s unusual predicament. Hoffman’s dry delivery as he asks some of the most specific questions in order to determine what kind of story Harold is in are funnier than intentional jokes in many comedies. And Ferrell’s bemused reactions to his ongoing investigation only heightens the hilarity.
Meanwhile, Emma Thompson is spectacularly miserable as Karen Eiffel, the author of Harold’s story, who is struggling to figure out how to end it. Even though she knows Harold Crick has to die, she’s having a hard time figuring out how to do it. Thompson’s role could have easily been unremarkable, but the actress makes a meal out it, despite the fact that most of it unfolds in voiceover. This movie will make you want to listen to Thompson read an entire book, or maybe even narrate your own life, even if it means you have to die sooner. But I digress.
Finally, we have Maggie Gyllenhaal as tax delinquent baker Ana Pascal, a sort of hipster who isn’t going to let the tax man get her down. She’s downright rude to Harold, making him think that he’s in a tragedy. But as an unlikely romance blossoms between them, Harold begins to accept that regardless of when he’s meant to die, he needs to start enjoying every minute he has left.
Stranger Than Fiction might be director Marc Forster’s best film. It has just the right mix of comedy and drama. It’s quirky but not overly so. It’s tragic, but not in an overwhelming way like Monster’s Ball. It’s whimsical but without being saccharine like Finding Neverland. It’s simply an entertaining and original way of giving us a touching reminder that our time on this planet is not guaranteed. In many ways, Harold is all of us. We may not know our death is imminent like he does, but we shouldn’t waste a single day given to us. That might be hard to accomplish in the middle of a pandemic, but this situation we’re in is all the more reason to enjoy life to the fullest as soon as we can.
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