A friend of mine was fond of calling Coldplay “Radiohead for stupid people.”
I wouldn’t go so far as to call Stranger Than Fiction “Charlie Kaufman for stupid people,” but it would be fair to label the film “Adaptation for the strip-mall cineplex.”
(And like all Kaufman and Kaufman-esque movies, the film is best if you go in knowing nothing about it. So stop reading now if you have any intention of seeing it.)
Kaufman, you’ll recall, is the screenwriter of such brilliantly recursive films as Being John Malcovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Adaptation was his 2002 picture, which jumped back and forth between a struggling author and the characters he was writing. So similar is the premise of Stranger Than Fiction that comparisons to Adaptation are inevitable, though the two films tackle the subject matter from opposite angles: the focus in Adaptation is on the screenwriter, while Stranger Than Fiction adopts the protagonist of the in-movie story as its own.
Harold Crick is a thoroughly uninteresting man, one who brushes his teeth a set number of seconds every morning, and squanders his days as an auditor for the IRS. He is also, as he soon realizes, the main character of a work-in-progress being written by Kay Eiffel, a novelist with a penchants for snuffing her protagonists in the end. When Crick discovers that he (somehow) occupies the same world as his creator, he sets off to confront Eiffel, hoping to procure a “happy ending” for himself.
If Stranger Than Fiction were a Kaufman film, all of this would be explained: why Crick suddenly starts hearing Eiffel’s “narration” in his head, how the two can inhabit the same universe, the extent of Crick’s free-will, and so forth. Kaufman’s great strength is his ability to create complex, meticulous, and extraordinarily well thought-out worlds; unfortunately, this can also be his weakness, and his films sometimes sag under the tonnage of clever.
Fiction, meanwhile, uses its high-concept conceit as little more than a framing device for a straight-forward romantic comedy. To that end, it wastes little time justifying the more bizarre aspects of its premise. On the one hand, that’s a good thing, as torturous explanation as to how things “work” would certainly bog the film down; on the other, Fiction’s failure to establish any ground rules for what is and isn’t possible puts the movie in the realm of the Bugs Bunny cartoon, where anvils fall from the sky and characters routinely bounce back from death.
Will Ferrel is a good fit for Crick. As with Steve Martin before him, Ferrel has mastered the role of hilarious straightman, who elicits laughter via deadpan delivery and blinking befuddlement. Maggie Gyllenhaal is cute as a button as Ana Pascal, Crick’s eventual lover, but their romance is the most unbelievable aspect of a film packed full of plot-twists that strain credibility. He works for the government, she’s an anarchist, and they get together … why? Crick doesn’t even woo Pascal — he just pines for her until she obligingly signs up as his girlfriend.
(Actually, I take that back. The most unbelievable aspect of the movie is the idea that Kay Eiffel, Harold Crick’s author, is one of the finest writers alive. Throughout the film we hear prose from Eiffel’s novel as voiceover, and, man, it sounds like nothing so much as a Hollywood screenwriter trying to impersonate “the finest writer alive.” Seriously, couldn’t they have cut a check to Marilynne Robinson and asked her to anonymously rewrite those passages?)
I like Coldplay, though I prefer Radiohead. And I enjoyed Stranger Than Fiction, even while recognizing it as, essentially, one broken story (the romance) packed inside another (the protagonist – author relationship). There’s no real need to see this one in the theater, but it would be a worthy DVD rental on an evening when you want something that manages to be both slightly unusual and thoroughly conventional.