....and a whole lot more: that's what the delightful Stranger than Fiction is about.
If you've seen the trailer to Will Ferrell's latest movie, you know that it is about an IRS auditor who suddenly hears the voiceover narration of his dull life, an omniscient narrator heard saying "Little did he know, Harold was about to die...". I was skeptical that this would be anything more than a clever Hollywood gimmick, a setup used for the usual frat-boy comedy that Ferrell is known for. So it seemed like the perfect movie choice for a cold, rainy November afternoon -- not too heavy, kind of funny, and probably forgettable. But it wasn't the laugh-out-loud funny Ferrell antics one would expect, and it isn't so lighthearted that it is forgettable in the distance between the theatre door and your parked car.
Ferrell's character, Harold Crick, tries to find answers to the sudden narration of his life, but refuses the medical diagnosis of schizophrenia and instead turns to help of a literary nature from literature professor Jules Hilbert, played by Dustin Hoffman. At the professor's urging, Harold, in his slightly compulsive way, tries to determine if his life is a comedy or a tragedy. His efforts are suggestive of both. But, by assessing his life, Harold begins to take action to do something other than his usual calculated (sometimes literally) life, especially when he begins to fall in love with the tax-protesting, socially conscious baker Ana, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Meanwhile, writer Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) struggles with writer's block as she tries to imagine Harold's imminent death.
I don't want to give anything away, but the movie not only pokes fun at the nature of novels, but also at the little quirks of one's life. Is there only one ending to a book -- or to life? Do we actually choose our fates? Is fiction more 'real' than real life? Is there more than just death and taxes? (Hint to the last question: Sugar Cookies).
I loved how the narration gimmick worked in this movie. A movie that deals with meta-fiction may sound weird, but is it really any stranger than in written form? At least in the movie it is accessible and humorous. The movie recognizes that the viewer will understand the use of an omniscient narrator in fiction -- and then turns it on it's ear in a playful way. Is life a comedy? Is it a tragedy? How omniscient can a narrator really be? A reader understands the issues with narration while reading a novel, but can overlook the inherent problems with narrative technique during reading. In the same way, the movie-goer is both aware that the idea of a narrator intruding and directing the life of a real character is ridiculous, but is part of the plot. In the end Stranger Than Fiction is not about fiction, or writing technique, or writer's block. But it is about life and, in some ways, about how fiction can so adeptly describe the truthfulness of life.