Stranger Than Fiction is in my top five films of all time.
That’s a sentence that often gets a bemused reaction from someone who hasn’t seen it, and, at the very least, an understanding one from those who have.
Given the concept, the cast and the lack of promotion in general for the picture when it was released in 2006, there were plenty of reasons why it should not have worked – and even when I watch it I’m still not sure how it does at times.
This was a time when lead actor Will Ferrell was massively over-exposed in shouty, exaggerated comic roles; when Queen Latifah was seen as a joke after her appearances in Taxi and Last Holiday and when Dustin Hoffman was scratching around for something to make himself relevant again.
Chucking them in to what, on the face of it, appeared to be a romcom seemed like a potential disaster.
But Stranger Than Fiction is not a romcom. In fact, I’m not sure what genre, if any, it fits into.
The aforementioned concept sees Ferrell’s IRS agent Harold Crick become aware that he is the character in a book after he begins to hear his life being narrated by author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), who informs him of his imminent death.
This comes as a surprise to both Crick and the audience given just how boring a life he leads (he counts the number of stairs he climbs up every day and the number of strokes while brushing his teeth), but through meeting alluring new client Maggie Gyllenhaal and in getting advice from Hoffman’s literature expert Jules Hilbert, it becomes obvious Crick does have a story ahead of him – reclaiming his life.
It is a brilliant idea for a screenplay, and one that cursed writer Zach Helm as his career basically dissolved afterwards (he wrote and directed the abominable Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium a year later and that was effectively that).
But he came up with two hours of genius and film is better off for it. Watching Ferrell’s downtrodden, glum nobody start living his life and actively seek ways to improve it is a genuinely moving experience, while he is also behind the best pun-based romantic gesture in film history.
The ending is a little iffy, as the film itself draws attention to, when Eiffel and Crick meet and the former becomes aware she is going to kill him if she finishes her novel.
With a heavy dose of meta, it raises the age old question of whether sad, but realistic and fulfilling endings are better than the happy ones that are neatly tied up with everyone happy (the answer, of course, is yes). Ultimately, it is satisfying.
As good as the script is, and it is good, Stranger Than Fiction is a film that benefits from its cast and their utterly perfect delivery.
What I personally loved was how the cast flipped expectations. Serious actor Hoffman is loving every minute and is a comic delight, while the more often comedy sidekick Latifah is excellent in a more understated role as Eiffel’s tough assistant who refuses to put up with any crap.
Gyllenhaal is also hilarious as an ultra-left wing baker hell-bent on making Crick’s life even more of a misery and Thompson does pompous and bitter than virtually anybody.
What really stands out about this film is how well fleshed-out the characters are in just two hours of film time – something that television series often struggle with over upwards of 10 episodes. You get an absolute understanding of how they ended up where they are and their motivations for their actions, which sadly is not the case for most pictures produced in Hollywood currently.
Which brings us to Ferrell. He is nothing short of a revelation in this role, and I am deeply saddened he has not pursued more serious characters since.
I recently watched him in Everything Must Go, a 2010 drama in which he plays an alcoholic who loses his wife and job and reacts by selling all of his property – the first ‘serious’ role I have seen him perform after Stranger – and again he is brilliant.
Maybe I think that because it is unexpected, but I believe it goes deeper than that. Ferrell’s expressions and reactions have always been a huge asset to his comedy, with his shouting often holding him back.
In stranger he displays just how good his acting chops are. Understated Ferrell has always been my favourite (his Alex Trebek in SNL’s Celebrity Jeopardy sketch series is one of the finest things he has ever done). Don’t get me wrong, I love Anchorman and Old School, but too often he has been one-note over the past 15 years.
Still, Stranger Than Fiction remains a triumph for Ferrell and all involved. It’s well worth your time.