Thornhill woke up early that Saturday, eager to watch a new film he hoped would prove memorable. His alarm went off, far too early for it had been a hectic week and his mind needed rest, but it reminded him of the possible treasure awaiting. Completing his normal morning chores much more quickly than usual; the feel of the water washing away dirt and beard shavings, the smell of the cat food nauseating him just slightly, the bark of his neighbor’s dog as he left his apartment and headed out to the car park were all familiar sights and sounds, just experienced at a slightly accelerated pace.
The matinee was early, much earlier than he would normally attend, but because it was at an acceptable local theater, right in the midst of his normal Saturday morning routine, thornhill decided to give it a go. Upon his arrival, he was disappointed to find the movie was screening on one of the multiplexes smaller screens, not the large screen downstairs. Didn’t the film open this weekend? These theaters are small and boxy and not at all to the intrepid movie reviewer’s liking. But thornhill made a commitment, planned his day, and there was no turning back.
Rushing into the theater, thornhill missed one of the trailers, but managed to catch the remaining nine. Thankfully, because he was a few minutes late, he missed the requisite Sprite, cell phone-that-can-play-your-favorite-songs and new violent video game ads that were now a part of the movie going experience. No wonder so many have given up the theater experience completely to view most of their films at home, on DVD. But thornhill would never give up on theaters, not completely, because a large part of the movie experience is hearing the reactions of your neighbors, heightening your experience and theirs.
As the first few frames of “Stranger than Fiction” rolled, thornhill knew he was in for something special. Despite the shadow of an exterior light on one side of the screen (he would surely have to forsake this particular screen in the future), he began to enjoy the film, its wacky story and off-center characters.
As thornhill watched, Will Ferrell’s character, Harold Crick, an IRS auditor with a very regimented life, began to take form. As Emma Thompson’s dulcet tones narrated, he learned a lot about Harold and his life, how little variation or excitement it held. Both Ferrell and director Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland”, “Monster’s Ball”) accomplish the brilliant feat of breathing life into this character. Ferrell’s performance is so low key; he is extremely believable as a government employee who works at possibly one of the most mind numbing jobs imaginable. As thornhill watched the performance, he realized Ferrell hit every note perfectly. At lunch, Harold reads calculator catalogs, his apartment is drab and monotonous, he spends the exact same amount of time every day at lunch and on his coffee break, and counts the number of steps from his house to the bus stop.
Then, he begins to hear the narration of his life. Initially, he thinks he is going crazy, but soon learns the voice belongs to author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) and through more investigation, realizes he is the subject of her new book. The voice becomes a commonplace occurrence, something he is only mildly annoyed with and then begins to accept.
Then one day, while waiting for the bus, Kay mentions Harold must die. Naturally, Harold isn’t happy to hear this and tries to find Kay and save his life. During this same time, he meets Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the owner of a bakery. Harold is auditing her and Kay’s narration is spot on, he can’t help but imagine what Ana would look like in a bathtub. But as he is her auditor, the chance of romance is slim.
Thornhill watched the movie with glee, very happy with the tone and feel of the film. In the opening moments, and throughout, director Forster shows us what Harold’s life is like by giving us a view of what his character sees. As Kay’s narration explains, Harold walks the same way from his house to the bus, always running the last few steps to catch the same bus. As she speaks, we see a superimposed map appear before Harold’s eyes. When he is brushing his teeth, we see a counter appear, helping him keep track of the number of brushstrokes on every tooth. Throughout the film, various maps, diagrams, etc. appear to help Harold maintain the rigidity of his life.
Then he meets Ana and she throws him for a loop. Attracted to her, she initially loathes him because he represents the government and is auditing her. But Harold’s life is less sound, as he is experiencing something he has never experienced before. Caused by two factors, his new found love and the narration of his life informing him that he must die. When he hears this, Harold decides to live his life like he has never lived it before.
As thornhill watched “Fiction”, the film continued to expand and grow, beyond just the Ferrell and Gyllenhaal characters. Yes, they are both very good and the film would probably be fine with just them, but there is more going on in this film.
Thornhill was pleased to see Emma Thompson in a fine role in this film. Her voice proved to be the perfect accompaniment to Harold’s life. Then, when we meet Kay Eiffel, we realize she is a real mess. She uses the guise of her writing to investigate ways to commit suicide, but we aren’t fooled. First, we watch her standing on a roof top, weaving her hand through the air, contemplating what it would be like to jump off. This reverie is interrupted by the arrival of her new assistant (Queen Latifah), a publisher appointed helper meant to help Eiffel get past her writer’s block and stay on target. For many a writer, including thornhill, writer’s block is a bad thing and Kay has it bad. She can write, but she can’t figure out how to kill Harold Crick and without that, the book will meander, the quality will suffer, so this prevents her from writing. For Eiffel, writer’s block makes her even more neurotic and nervous, causing her to chain smoke throughout the day.
Harold goes to see a psychologist (Linda Hunt) who insists the voices in his head could be quieted by prescription drugs. But he doesn’t want to go that route. Instead, he visits a Professor of Literature Theory, Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), who insists he can’t help either until Harold explains the narrator in his head uses a common phrase. When the professor hears this, he realizes something strange is happening to Harold. The professor treats him like a student pursuing their doctorate and they begin working together.
Thornhill was very pleased to see Hoffman back in form. Every time we see Professor Hilbert meeting with Harold, he is drinking coffee, or eating. At one point, he buys a cup of coffee from vending machine and as soon as they arrive in his office, the professor pours another cup from a small brew pot. It seems to be his nervous tick, a way to keep his hands occupied. The performance is interesting, quirky and completely at place in this universe.
As the film continued, thornhill realized the characters were perfectly matched to their environments, another example of the top notch production team working to create an interesting, wacky landscape for the film. Harold’s apartment is dominated by off-white and Spartan, with no decoration. Kay’s apartment is sparse, but disorganized, to reflect her life. Ana’s bakery is homey, cozy and welcoming even to a man who talks to himself and accepts handouts from the baker. The IRS offices are predominantly white, filled with cubicles and numbers and ready to sap the life out of one and all. At one point, Harold stays with his work buddy, Dave, who dreams of going to Space Camp and is clearly a Star Trek nerd. His apartment is all lozenge shapes and stone, built in the mid 70s. In fact, most of the architecture seems to be from the mid 80s, giving the film a stylized look perfectly complimenting the wacky nature of the story.
Throughout the film, thornhill delighted at director Marc Forster’s off-beat sensibilities. Shortly after Harold meets Ana, he rides a double length bus to his next appointment and listens as the narrator mentions a fate meeting with Ana, who then boards the bus. This is shortly after they have met, so Ana still loathes the IRS Auditor. She refuses his offer of a seat next to him, and tries to get as far away as possible, but the bus lurches, catching her off guard and she lands in a seat directly facing him. As they make small talk, the bus continues on it’s course. Because Harold is sitting in the seat positioned in the accordion webbing connecting the two buses, and the camera remains stationary, looking at Ana, every time the bus turns, Harold moves back and forth. This is a brilliant and slightly wacky way of showing how Harold feels about Ana and his relationship with her. He can’t quite decide and keeps going back and forth about it.
Thornhill left the theater very happy but then a thought occurred; many people are probably expecting “Fiction” to be a raucous, laugh a minute comedy based on Ferrell’s previous work. Hopefully, they will be able to look past this and appreciate the film for what it is, a wry, well-made dark comedy with some very funny moments.
Very funny moments, indeed. Thornhill is still amused.