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It’s almost a certainty in mainstream films that the best comedic actors will invariably end up turning to drama, if not once, than for the second half of their career. Tom Hanks and Jim Carrey are good examples. Adam Sandler did it. The talented Will Ferrell is no exception, though his foray into the genre has met with less success and so he continues to produce some of the funniest films. But back in 2006, he was already one of the most admired screen comedians in cinema history, starring in one box office hit after another, creating a slew of memorable characters that have come to define a whole sub-genre of endlessly quotable, absurdist films. While he did have a part in the Woody Allen comedy/drama Melinda and Melinda (a mostly well-received but commercially unsuccessful project) it was a still a surprise of sorts when he became the headliner for Stranger than Fiction, a deceptively deep study on loneliness and awakening that was marketed as a comedy yet was anything but.
Ferrell is Harold Crick, a senior agent for the Internal Revenue Service, a quiet, orderly man who lives his life by the numbers, literally. For twelve years, we’re told, he does the exact same daily routine in the exact same sequence, the same exact number of times. That is until a very significant thing happens: His wristwatch stops working, on a Wednesday. Then everything changes.
Directed by Marc Forster, the story follows Crick as he meets (and becomes enamored with) a young woman named Ana Pascal (a beguiling Maggie Gyllenhaal), the owner of a small bakery. She is to be audited and is naturally unhappy by the thought. Meanwhile, the normally structured and by-the-numbers Crick is having a peculiar day. That morning, he began hearing a woman’s voice in his head narrating his life as it happened and it’s caused him to become just a little off his game, as would be expected when hearing voices, especially one that seems to be describing everything you’re doing. It turns out the voice in his head is actually . . . well, I think I’ll leave that for you discover, but nonetheless, it’s a clever little idea. Stranger Than Fiction is a surprisingly affecting film, with a standout dramatic performance by Ferrell. And like every movie, it has one great moment.
Crick is a man of measured restraint and absolute structure. His wardrobe is impeccably organized. His kitchen spotless. His home practically sterile. A gifted talent with numbers, he sees the world in mathematical terms (often the screen is filled with detailed graphical representations of what he sees in his mind). When he brushes his teeth, he counts the strokes to a specific end. When he fills the dishwasher he measures angles and repeating patterns. This is Harold Crick’s life.
On the morning when the woman’s voice (that of the delightful Emma Thompson) first echoes in his head, he initially takes it in stride, perhaps chalking it up to his imagination, though he appears to have little of that. When he realizes it is precisely detailing his every action, he becomes a little concerned. But being the dutiful IRS employee, he continues with his morning routine and heads for work, albeit more than typically distracted. For example, when asked the sum of a complex mathematical equation, something he easily calculates in his head daily, he stumbles and runs off. That’s just the start.
A bit later, flustered but dealing with this British-accented internal female commentator, he stands in line at the bus stop awaiting his ride home. There, among a small group of others at the curb, he begins to hear ‘her’ again, and this time, she is not so much describing what he’s doing, but seemingly voicing a narrative about his future. Since his watch stopped earlier, he had to ask a stranger for the time. This triggers her to make a startling comment. Little does he know, she says, that this simple innocuous act–of asking for the time–will result in his imminent death. The words ripple out from his mind like mini tidal waves.
Naturally, the statement doesn’t sit well with Harold. Right there on the street he starts shouting up to the sky about what that all means. But there is no reply. And even more naturally, everyone pretty much ignores him. Typical. Either way, he gets home, and this is where the movie does something remarkable. To this point, the story has been a bit playful if not teetering on a comedic edge. It is Will Ferrell after all and the premise is itself ripe for humor. But alone in his apartment, terrified by the voice in his head and the odd prediction of his future, Harold does anything but funny.
In panic, he heads straight to the bathroom where he first noticed the voice while brushing his teeth. Desperate to have her speak again, after having gone mute at the bus station, he starts counting strokes with his toothbrush, using his name in the first person. He moves on from corner to corner, narrating his every frantic action as he begins to tear through his apartment. He eventually collapses, sitting dejected and fearful on his bedside, commenting on that very thought. “Harold, distraught. Harold, distraught.” All the while, a mournful piano (written by Britt Daniel) rises in the background, perfectly capturing the angst and sadness of this profound moment.
But most affecting though is Ferrell’s truly touching performance (here and throughout–look for many that will surprise you). At one point, as he rips through his bedroom, he faces a mirror, screaming “Say Something!” It’s a stirring and traumatic moment and it also suggests that Crick himself believes the voice is in fact within him, perhaps a part of himself. More revealing, and unnerving, is how he looks directly at us, the only fourth wall break in the film, and one that challenges us to believe in him as well, even though at this point, we’re pretty confident where the voice is coming from.
Ferrell has made a career out of creating over-the-top, bombastic, unfiltered characters that live in the fringes of reality and fantasy. We’ve come to expect it, and there is part of that expectation alive and kicking when this moment begins, as if we are about to witness another classic Ferrel freakout. Yet while he does ‘freak out’, the execution is flawlessly natural and by no means comedic. This is a tragedy, and entirely because it is Will Ferrell and not a more common dramatic actor in the part, it somehow makes this sequence all the more authentic. What’s more though is how much it lingers over the entire production, setting a tone that soaks into every corner of the film. Yes, there are some great moments of humor, but you’ll notice I didn’t say comedy. Ferrell imbibes great warmth and compassion to Harold Crick, never once veering into the safety of his previous roles that made him so popular. Certainly, fans looking for that may be disappointed, especially since the marketing suggests that’s where it is going. But for those who welcome genre-specific actors looking to explore their talents elsewhere, Stranger Than Fiction is sure to become a favorite. Indeed, repeat viewings only endear the film and its lead character as time goes by. It’s an underrated movie, and Harold learning of an imminent death is a great moment.
Director: Marc Forster
Writer: Zach Helm
Stars: Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman