Thursday, October 1, 2009

Stranger Than Fiction

Chosen By: Leila Moslemi (

What if you realized the importance of your life only days before you lost it? Even knowing when or how you will die (not such a fatuous idea with the completion of the Genome Project) raises difficult questions about how much we really want to know about ourselves.

Such a theme is usually simplified and subsumed into religious-based tales such as It's a Wonderful Life, but taken as an idea in its own right it has considerable intellectual weight. Harold Crick finds himself the main character in a story as it unfolds, but his annoyance quickly shifts gear as he is aware of the author saying, "Little did he know... it would lead to his imminent death."

Stranger Than Fiction is an abstract blend of the saccharine and the absurd. Using Will Ferrell as the bland protagonist searching for meaning in his life, director Marc Forster tries to make sense of the script but it ends up in a land. Harold Crik is a man of infinite numbers, endless calculations, and remarkably few words. Every weekday for twelve years he lives to the timing of his wristwatch. Until Wednesday. On Wednesday, a voice begins narrating his innermost thoughts, and proclaims that a “ seemingly innocuous event” will result in his “imminent death.” In desperation, Harold steps out of his mold, hoping to find the voice and prevent his fate. He doesn’t know the story will end at the exact moment when he has the most to live for. Not only is it a great story, but it’s a masterpiece in dialogue, characterization, and humor.

Each main character has a counterpart, and most of the character’s stories are entangled. Thus one character getting what they want is detrimental to the other character. The main plot in Stranger Than Fiction is about Harold, trying to save himself from the mysterious narrator, and a writer named Karen, trying to figure out how to kill her main character. These two are at odds. Right off you have the main conflict, and a domino effect occurs. characters should face their fears. However, what struck me in watching Stranger Than Fiction was not that Harold had this big climatic moment where he came up against what scared him most, chooses to fight it, and wins. No. The challenge is that each time he comes up against a fear, it’s an opportunity for him to grow a little, push past it a little, and face it a step at a time.

Misdirection is an important part of dialogue. Have characters answer unspoken questions. Have them talk at cross-purposes. Have them hedge. Take a literal question figuratively, or vice versa.

This builds nuance and humor into dialogue. For example, Karen’s publishers send her an “assistant” named Penny to help her finish the book. This creates an immediate animosity, as Karen thinks Penny is a spy for the publishers. And Penny dislikes Karen’s habit of chain-smoking. In a clash of wills, Penny says,

“I suppose you smoked all those cigarettes.”

“No,” Karen says. She raises an eyebrow. “They came pre-smoked.”

Each character in Stranger Than Fiction can be identified by their physical quirks. For example, Harold wears dull V-neck sweaters, and keeps all the furniture in his house off-white. Ana Pascal surrounds herself with color: floral glass plates, mosaic chandeliers, while surrounding herself with activist posters.

Even the street names, business names, and the characters' last names of Stranger Than Fiction are significant - Crick, Pascal, Eiffel, Escher, Banneker, Kronecker, Cayly, etc. are all puns on mathematicians who focused on the innate order of things. The invitation is to ask what is beyond the symmetry of things.

We sense a life-imbuing process that might even be likened to what an actor does with his character; but the film goes a stage further by drawing a comparison with the essentially lifeless, clockwork existence of the IRS auditor whose only escape is discovering love with Pascal. His quest is aided by fictional plot analysis from Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) and of course begs the question, what is fiction?


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