A low-key Will Ferrell stars as a man who's about to be killed by a novelist's exclamation point. He can hear her narrating voice. And what she's saying doesn't bode well for him.
IRS auditor Harold Crick lives an orderly life. He counts the number of times he brushes each of his 32 teeth. The number of steps to the bus stop. And the seconds in his coffee break. (Let's just say that Mr. Monk would love this guy.) All that begins to change—on a Wednesday—when Harold starts hearing a voice narrating every moment of his existence, describing both his external actions and his deepest thoughts.
Meanwhile, novelist Kay Eiffel is having trouble finishing her latest book. She can't figure out how to kill off her protagonist ... Harold Crick. With the help of a publisher's representative (there to insure she meets her deadline), Kay considers one option after another, looking for the perfect, tragic way to end his life.
Although nobody else can hear the voice incessantly narrating his every move, Harold knows he's not crazy. He also knows the voice is ruining his life, and his newfound and unlikely romantic relationship with the subject of his latest audit, a baker named Ana Pascal. When the voice predicts Harold's imminent death, he turns to literary professor Jules Hilbert. Prof. Hilbert tries to help him figure out what kind of story he's in to see if they can do anything to change his fate. Maybe they can even find the author before she types "The End."
This pleasantly languid, mostly comic story offers several layers of meaning through which to sift for positive elements. In a way, the film urges us to wrestle with the inevitability of death, to make the most of the time we have right now and to accept the guiding hand of providence. Gratefulness for good things is encouraged. And Harold receives kind help from Prof. Hilbert (who assists him in sleuthing for an answer) and a co-worker (who lets him live with him for a time), as well as the object of his affection, Ana (who, despite her disdainful feelings about taxmen, reaches out to him with cookies and tenderness as she begins to see him as a person rather than merely an agent of the government).
Among other things, Harold discovers the value of giving up his perception of control over his life and entering into relationships with others. He's urged to remake his life into "the one you've always wanted" rather than continuing to settle for the existence he's currently experiencing. Harold, in turn, encourages his friend to do the same ("You're never too old to go to Space Camp, dude").
When Kay realizes that the people she's been systematically killing off in her novels might have all been real, she's agonized by what she may have done to them. Fiction is one thing. Murder by typewriter is quite another, for her. Her reaction to this new information vividly illustrates the importance and value every human life carries.
Harold isn't asked to blindly accept that guiding hand of providence. He's asked to comprehend that it is the hand of someone who knows what's best for him. Someone who cares about him. Someone he should, most importantly, trust.
Moviegoers will read all kinds of religio-philosophical ideas into this mostly breezy subtext. And largely, that'll be a good thing since Stranger Than Fiction doesn't set out to do damage to these issues. It seems to just want to dabble a little. It mostly avoids any outright mention of God or religion, though Kay is very briefly heard in a TV interview saying she doesn't believe in God. That's countered by her concluding narration which credits God with kindly giving us life's little pleasures.
When Harold first meets Ana at her bakery, he zones out looking at her while the narrator describes him giving in to the urge to imagine her naked. She calls him on "staring at my t-ts." He later apologizes, quite sincerely, for "ogling" her. Eventually, they make out and begin to hurriedly disrobe for sex. (They're seen lying in bed together covered to the shoulders afterwards.)
Making up stories while trying to find Kay, Harold reels off an unconvincing yarn about him being married to Kay's brother.
In events both imagined by the narrator and real within the larger story, physical harm results from traffic accidents (a car plunges off a bridge) and falls from buildings (a suicide jump). Referencing the latter form of calamity, Kay recounts the gory details of what happens when you hit the ground. A man is hit by a bus. And a boy wrecks his bicycle. Blood is visible a few times, including a scene set in a hospital emergency room.
Harold watches a nature channel featuring various animal predators killing and devouring their prey. Angry that his narrator won't reveal herself, he takes out his feelings on his bedroom. He destroys a lamp, throws things, etc. Heavy wrecking machinery crashes through his apartment wall scaring him and nearly killing him.
Crude or Profane Language
Jesus' and God's names are heard as swear words once and a half-dozen times, respectively. (God's name is additionally combined with "d--n" a couple of times.) One f-word. One or two uses each of "d--n," "h---" and "b--ch."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Kay is a chain smoker and also drinks while she's working. Her assistant, who declares that she "won't abide narcotics," pesters her about her smoking. Repeatedly she tells Kay that it'll kill her and suggests she try a nicotine patch in order to stop. It's implied that at the end of the story, Kay is ready to take her up on it.
Other Negative Elements
Harold misuses his position as an IRS agent to procure personal information about Kay. Ana, meanwhile, adamantly vocalizes anti-taxation sentiments that betray her belief that citizens can (and should) refuse to pay all or part of their tax debt. Notably, even after she falls for Harold, she never alters her "get bent, taxman!" stance, declaring that as far as she's concerned, "The point is break the tax laws." For his part, Harold begins to look for ways he can get her off the hook because she "makes the world a better place."
The camera catches some groan-worthy, non-sexual rear nudity when four or five elderly guys are glimpsed while Harold and Prof. Hilbert stroll through a college locker room. On a movie screen, we see a man projectile vomiting (in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life). A scene is set in a bathroom where we hear the professor urinating. Later, Harold uses a bottle for the same purpose. (The camera doesn't dip down in either case.)
Once you give in to the high-concept premise of Stranger Than Fiction, this low-key mindbender is generally pleasant to watch. Actor Will Ferrell delivers an understated performance about a thousand watts lower than those in films such as Anchorman and Talladega Nights. (Think of this as his Truman Show.) His absolute sincerity turns Harold Crick into an utterly sympathetic and amusing character without ever making him particularly heroic or laugh-out-loud hilarious.
Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson give nice turns as well, but the clear stars of the film are Zach Helm's script and Marc Forster's consistently playful, yet thoughtful tone. Clues to "what's really going on here" can be found in the smallest details, even the monochromatic, stripped-down offices and living spaces. And adding to the fun is a screen littered with CGI elements representing Harold's geometrically minded, numbers-obsessed view of his world.
Detracting from it is Harold and Ana's illicit (yet completely condoned) coupling, a few scenes of violence, fly-on-the-wall views of urination and showering, and touches of profanity.
The larger picture here, though, is one near and dear to the hearts of both Bible scholars and psych majors. Are Helm and Forster suggesting that the life best lived is the one that yields to the workings of providence or the one that fights against the tyranny of fate? Is the film really just about the literary process? Or is it trying to hint at a particular worldview? Thoughtful Christians, among others, will be provoked to deep thoughts about God's providential workings in our lives and deaths if they choose to watch. But the answers to these larger-than-life questions will have to come from their own heads and hearts, not the script.
In the process of politely refusing to definitively assign answers to the fate vs. choice dilemma (as if anyone actually could), Stranger Than Fiction leaves viewers with one amazingly straightforward homily beyond that of wake up and live well. It is that while a good deed done unwittingly is still a good deed, one done with full knowledge of the sacrifice required is the rarest of spiritual services.