I am a sucker for concept movies. At first viewing, I loved Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Adaptation and Memento were pretty good as well. Lest I forget Fight Club, another clever one. So it's unsurprising that I began to worry that my rave reviews relied only upon that a film have a surreal concept. Fortunately, Stranger than Fiction's failure as a concept movie proved I had inordinately worried.
The movie begins with clever computer graphics that emphasize the mundane exercises around which Will Ferrell's Harold Crick bases his life. Crick works as an auditor in the Internal Revenue Service who one day discovers that his life is actually a construct for a book written by acclaimed author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson). You've seen this man before. He was played by Kevin Spacey in American Beauty, Edward Norton in Fight Club, Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This is not to mock the common theme in movies of the existential crisis provoked by meaningless work; on the contrary, it is one of the perenially ripe subjects of our age.
The problem is, Stranger than Fiction assumes that a "masterpiece"--the compliment that Dustin Hoffman's English lit professor, Jules Hilbert, bestows upon Eiffel's book--need only present a story that we already know well. Death and Taxes, as the book is called, has barely progressed before we find out that Eiffel has spent years wrestling writers block on the subject of how to kill off Crick. I am usually impressed that authors don't get writers block more often, but I find it hard to believe that a talented writer becomes inert for ten years over killing a character off. Unless the story is a murder mystery, the death seems relatively inconsequential to the larger purpose of the novel.
I wanted to love Stranger than Fiction because it is not often that a zany English professor is one of the protagonists in a film, and moreover, that he is permitted to make clever jokes that appeal to a more literate audience. Unfortunately, Professor Hilbert only came in handy in scenes that would have totally bombed without a closing pithy remark.
No one actor, even Queen Latifah in her absolutely pointless role as Eiffel's publishing company's assistant, ruined the film, though. Stranger than Fiction's problem is that its central concept rendered itself pointless. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the concept--a device that allows the lead couple to forget their turbulent relationship and (unintentionally) reunite--imparts meaning: to be careful for what you wish, to learn how to embrace or at least accept the past, painful as it sometimes is, to question the wisdom of fate if it indeed exists as a phenomenon. In Stranger than Fiction, nothing about Crick's life as product of third person omniscient narration adds meaning to the story. The movie could have easily been about a boring IRS agent who finds love in an unconventional baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and learns how to live life to its fullest, sans cool script device; however, without the gimmick it probably would not have stood out among the pack.