Movies: Stranger Than Fiction

A friend of mine was fond of calling ColdplayRadiohead 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.

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19 comments.

  1. I can see what you’re saying, but honestly I didn’t think of Charlie Kaufman in relation to Stranger Than Fiction until I read all the reviews comparing them, mostly because I didn’t for once think that the movie was trying to be Charlie Kaufman. It really felt more like 21st century Frank Capra: it was a sweet little modern feel-good fable. That’s probably not going to be to everyone’s taste and the story had flaws, but the execution was amazing and I basically loved it.

  2. I’m still hoping someone at some point will tell me what is similar about Coldplay and Radiohead. Coldplay sounds like pop, Radiohead sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard. Coldplays has descriptive lyrics that talk about various things coherently though pretty darn sentimentally, Radiohead uses sparse, sentence-less lyrics that evoke a dreamlike mood. Coldplay talks about stuff and seems to be trying to say something, though the morals generally aren’t advanced much beyond 5th grade fiction…Radiohead comes at things obliquely and doesn’t offer any easy answers.

  3. I have to agree with Brenda that I didn’t see too much Kaufman in the movie, but that’s because I feel like Kaufman is so cyncical – even in the movies dealing directly with love and romance, you don’t for one second want to fall in love yourself. Stranger Than Fiction is almost the opposite of that – I so sincerely wish I baked for a living so someone would give me “flours.” (That, for me, was the most unbelievable part of the movie – as if someone with no imagination whatsoever could come up with that.)

    And amen to Kay Eiffel sounding like everything but a good writer. Notice how fake books in movies (I can’t think of another one, but they’re out there) always sound like the most horrible thing you’d never read?

  4. I agree with Arthur. Other than (“Creep”, which is already stretching it), the only similarity that I notice between Radiohead and Coldplay is that they are both British bands with guitars and a lead singer.

  5. Exactly. Though in all fairness the lead singers are often both blonde, thus showing obvious important musical and thematic connections to Cyndi Lauper.

  6. I loved Stranger than Fiction. I thought it was charming and sweet and smart and I think that if you can’t suspend disbelief, it probably wasn’t for you.

    Although I can see what people are saying above, I think it kind of misses the point. Why does everything always have to line up? It wasn’t Star Trek.

  7. Loved the movie. Funny, Odd, wistful, romantic – truly entertaining. I wish Will Ferrell would take more chances like this. Talladega Nights was pretty bad.

    Hate Coldplay – they’re boooring. (I’m making a wanking gesture with my right arm to indicate my feelings about them.)

  8. Kimberly may have a point in theory, but her example is a poor one. Star Trek never adds up. There has never been a story with so much shakey logic, profound inconsistencies and a refusal to exist within the framework of its creation than Star Trek. Except maybe politics.

  9. Thank you for explaining exactly how I felt about Stranger Than Fiction. I like when other people put words to my vague thoughts and feelings.

  10. I can’t read this post. I keep getting stuck at the phrase “tonnage of clever” and seeing it as “ton of cleavage” and it’s rather distracting.

  11. I totally agree with you. I was really bothered by the idea that Eiffel’s novel was so great that Dustin Hoffman (as the literature professor) wouldn’t fathom changing it. It was such a mediocre novel. It I was Harold Crick, I would just be depressed to find myself in such a contrived and boring book.

  12. On a fairly random and somewhat personal note, I felt totally cheated by this film when I learned that Maggie Gyllenhall was playing the anarchist/love interest for Will Ferrel. Several months (now likely over a year or so) back, I happened to be in Left Bank Books, in Pike Place, on a visit to Seattle and who was there but Maggie. As an indie film, theory geek, this was exactly the kind of celeb citing that I’ll grudgingly admit kind of made my day. After she left, the folks working there started talking with the few of us who had been in the store about what she had been doing there. Apparently she was “researching a role as an anarchist” and as such had requested a curated stack of books from Left Bank. They had stocked her up with Emma Goldman tomes etc. and we all mused about what kind of cool anarchy/theory-geek movie she might be in. I can assure you, in my wildest dreams I hadn’t imagined it would be a romantic comedy with Will Ferrel. Total let down.

  13. But that part when Harold and Ana make out after he plays that Wreckless Eric song is crazy hot.

  14. The constant Coldplay/Radiohead comparisons are because of one album– Radiohead’s second, The Bends, released in 1995. It’s the sound from that record (which RH left behind afterwards and moved on, as they do) that the imitators are copying. Coldplay have made whole records in which they parsed out aspects of single songs from The Bends… however, Chris Martin openly acknowledges the debt, so at least they’re not pretending to be original.

  15. It seems kind of silly to make comments about what kind of author Eiffel in when we’re only presented with bits and pieces of a fictional book. We aren’t actually reading the book or even seeing the story as the book was written–not really. So how could anyone one know what the book was really like as a whole piece?

  16. Okay…I suppose I can see the sound of High and Dry being similar to Coldplay…but that seems pretty tenuous considering how critics never shut up about it. A couple of the worst songs on an early album before the band had got their sound together? Oh well, they have column inches to fill up, let ‘em. On that subject though…I don’t actually mind whether they’re original or not or even whether they acknowledge it or not. It’s trite but true, great artists steal…but when they do they create great art. If Coldplay could just write something that made me feel something….besides a dull ache at my temples….that would be something.

  17. I agreed with you completely about the novel, but my wife cut this argument to shreds with an idea that I found very interesting, though not completely convincing. She argued that there were two versions of the novel — one in which Crick died, and the rewritten one in which he lived. We are witnessing the events from the one in which he lived, which was a bowdlerized, soppy romantic novel. So of course the text was drippy.

    Moreover, my wife contended, there was a subplot (which I thought I saw, though I’m not nearly so confident it’s really intended) in which Eiffel is sick, possibly with cancer or some other terminal disease, and the way she rescues Crick — indeed the entirely phenomenon of his coming into her life — is what’s going on in her head as she grapples with a potentially fatal illness and decides to somehow resist it by giving a doomed fictional character life.

    So all of Crick’s appearances are something like a psychotic break by Eiffel, and her own utter ruining of her greatest novel is her doomed gift of life to a fiction, whereby she sacrifices art to express her own feelings of chartiy, born of her imminent death. The novel is kind of an inverse swan song: the worst (and only badly-shaped) story of Eiffel’s life is the one she produces facing her own death.

    My wife contends that all this subtext is therefore much subtler and smarter than much of the mechanics of similar self-referential movies, as there is a hidden significance to the self-reference that is hinted at but not explained.

    What do you think? My wife thought this stuff was fairly clear. If so, I genuinely didn’t get the movie on first viewing.

  18. How messed up am I that I wanted STF to end with Eiffel following through on her suicide and taking Harold and Ana with her? Now that would have been Radiohead-esque.

  19. Funny, I used to like calling Radiohead, Blur for stupid people. And anyway, to me, Coldplay sounds more like U2.