Is your life a comedy or a tragedy?
It’s a question posed by the 2006 movie Stranger Than Fiction. The ingenious screenplay is by Zach Helm. And Marc Forster’s direction features great performances from Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, interspersed with beautifully composed vignettes of modernist Chicago. The film also expertly integrates some brilliantly quirky motion graphics by MK12.
We see them first during the wonderful main title sequence. Over footage of tax inspector Harold Crick (Ferrell) getting up and going to work, we hear a narration by Thompson simply describing what we are seeing. And over that, we see some brilliant moving infographics.
They describe the action and dramatise the fact that Harold has the rare talent of instantly quantifying spacial relationships and compulsively counting everything. These visuals are so good, they’ve been ripped-off hundreds of times since. Or, as Harold would probably tell us, exactly 372 times. Of course narrations have been done before in films and, of course, moving graphics and live action have been combined before, especially in title sequences. But it’s the perfect combination in this instance that really works so well and stands out.
This title sequence really has it all. Assured direction and cinematography, a Hollywood star, cool infographics and even a boulevard of Mies van der Rohe buildings. Oh, and an idea. What’s not to love?
The one thing that I find gobsmackingly astonishing though, is how on earth a Hollywood movie featuring Will Ferrell can go on to pose such intelligent and interesting questions about our existence, and in particular our responsibilities to art.
The plot is a little odd, so pay attention to this next bit. (Slight spoiler alert but not entirely.) Harold lives alone in a boring apartment, trapped in routine. His wristwatch gets a little fed up with all this and decides to do something about it. Harold then begins to hear a voice in his head describing everything he is doing. It turns out that the voice belongs to eccentric and reclusive author Karen Eiffel (Thompson) who is writing a book featuring Harold as the main character. But she is unaware that he is actually a real person. Oh, and in all her books, the main character dies in an interesting way. Still with me?
Hoffman puts in a great performance as literature professor Jules Hilbert, who Harold tracks down on the advice of a psychiatrist, to consult about the narrative behind the voice in his head (this is where the comedy/tragedy thing comes in – every story is always one or the other, apparently). And while all this is going on, Harold falls for his polar opposite, the right-on college dropout and cake shop owner, Ana Pascal (Gyllenhaal), who he happens to be auditing.
See? Not exactly your usual dumb Hollywood plot is it? Although, to be fair, with a nod to the disaster movie genre, the entire side of Harold’s apartment building does get destroyed.
Still with me? Yes? Amazing.
Harold recognises the owner of the voice in his head when he sees the reclusive Eiffel interviewed on an old TV show. And he eventually tracks her down (using her tax records of course).
What will Eiffel do when she discovers that Harold is actually a real live human being? Especially after she has finally thought up a brilliant way to kill him in her novel. She gives the manuscript to Harold. He can’t bring himself to read it and gives it to Professor Hilbert. He reads it, declares it an incredibly important work of literature and tells Harold that yes, unfortunately, he has to die.
Naturally, Harold doesn’t want to die. And he’s just fallen for Ana dammit. But when he too reads the manuscript and its brilliance, he accepts that, yes, he probably must die.
This is the bit where we all find ourselves massively empathising with a bloody tax inspector. See? Told you it was good.
Does Eiffel change a brilliant ending to her book thus destroying an important work of literature? Or does she knowingly sacrifice a person’s life? For art. And what does Harold’s watch have to say about it all? You’ll have to see the film to find out.
The questions posed are pretty fundamental for those of us who create stuff.
What sacrifices are necessary to make our work as good as it can possibly be? The movie takes things to extremes by making the sacrifice a human life. Personally, I’ve never actually killed anyone who was trying to ruin my double-page spread press ad (okay, I admit I’ve come close a couple of times). But the time and effort required to produce great work undoubtedly takes its toll: weekends, evenings, birthdays, anniversaries, personal relationships, business relationships etc etc. Is it all worth it?