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Monday 13 November 2006

Dying Is Hard, Comedy Is Easy:
A Review of Stranger Than Fiction

by Gary Westfahl

Directed by Marc Forster

Screenplay by Zach Helm

Starring Will Farrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, Emma Thompson, Tony Hale, Linda Hunt, Tom Hulce

It is both a seemingly innocuous comment, and the ultimate spoiler, to say that Stranger Than Fiction is precisely what it is advertised to be — namely, a comedy. The fact that the filmmakers seriously flirt with shifting to another generic model, but ultimately cannot bring themselves to take the plunge, says a great deal about why the film, despite its fantastic premise, resists classification as science fiction or fantasy, and also conveys a disheartening message about the contemporary filmgoers who make charming but unadventurous movies like this one so successful.

The premise of the film is that Harold Crick (Will Farrell), an auditor for the Internal Revenue Service working in New York City, discovers that he is a character in a novel being written by Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), who plans to conclude her story with his death. Recognizing her genuine power over him, Crick must contact Eiffel and persuade her to let him live. For readers of science fiction and fantasy, this scenario will immediately raise any number of questions. How, precisely, did this state of affairs come about? Did Eiffel have the power to warp the fabric of space and time in order to bring a person into existence who remembers, and can prove, that he has been alive for decades? Or, as seems more likely, did her process of "creating" a character actually involve somehow becoming aware of a real person and, by writing about him, gradually taking control of his life? Were her other fictional characters also real people? Do other writers have similar powers? Shouldn't the other people in the film begin to wonder if they, too, are characters in somebody's fictional story (as, indeed, they are)?

Not only does Stranger Than Fiction fail to answer any of these questions, it does not even bother to ask them. Instead, everybody in the film calmly accepts the situation — that the person standing in front of them is also a character in a novel whose fate will be determined by what a novelist chooses to type on her final page — and proceeds to ponder only whether it would be best to let him live or kill him off. And this question, in turn, hinges upon an issue that rarely comes up in popular films: namely, what are the true characteristics of great works of literature?

In taking its premise into this unlikely territory, the film provides a fascinating contrast to a classic fantasy novella with a similar theme, L. Ron Hubbard's "Typewriter in the Sky" (1940). A lawsuit alleging that screenwriter Zach Helm improperly stole his story from Hubbard could accurately state that both works have the same basic plot: a man discovers he is a character in a novel who is fated to die and hence must struggle to avoid doing what the novelist wants him to do in order to stay alive; and while doing so, he finds himself falling in love with a beautiful woman. Lawyers for the plaintiff could also slyly note that both stories are about characters who take money away from other people (a seventeenth-century pirate, and a contemporary IRS auditor) and that both novelists live in New York City and do their work on a typewriter. But the studio's defense lawyers would have a powerful case as well. As one significant variation, Hubbard's Mike de Wolf is pulled away from his contemporary world and placed in an obviously fictional past, and his quest is to escape from the story and return to his previous life. Crick learns that he is a fictional character in his own world, and his quest is to remain, and to remain alive, within that world. Hubbard's novelist is male, Helm's is female; and unlike de Wolf, Crick is able to speak directly to the novelist intent upon his demise. Finally, as a science fiction writer, Hubbard is willing to take his story into the speculative realms that Helm avoids, offering a trick ending in which de Wolf, now returned to New York, comes to suspect that he is still a character in somebody's story.

However, the most telling difference between the stories lies in their attitudes toward literature. Hubbard's Horace Hackett, as his name implies, is a hack writer cynically churning out a derivative pirate novel for a pulp magazine; de Wolf properly has nothing but contempt for the inane story he is trapped in, and if his efforts to survive result in changes to the plot, that is hardly a matter of concern. But Helms's Eiffel is a distinguished and respectable author, and everyone who becomes familiar with her new novel greatly admires it and strongly wishes to preserve its original ending.

The reasons for their opinion are spelled out early in the film, when Crick consults professor of literature Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), who tells him that, in order to fully understand his situation, he must determine what sort of story he is in. There are two types of stories, he says, comedies and tragedies; in comedies, the hero lives, and in tragedies, the hero dies. Those who have actually studied under such professors must charitably ignore the fact that no real professor of literature would ever espouse such a simplistic formula and proceed to Hilbert's second premise, less explicitly stated but clear nevertheless: to those devoted to literature, tragedies are far superior to comedies, and only uneducated readers would prefer comedies to tragedies. Thus, on one side of the film's argument stand Eiffel and her greatest admirer, Hilbert, who love tragedies and want her new novel Death and Taxes to conclude with the protagonist's tragic death; as Hilbert tells Crick after reading the novel, he must die in the proscribed manner because it will be so "poetic" and "meaningful." On the other side is Crick, the cloddish everyman who naively likes the happy endings found in popular fiction and would especially like his own life story to have a similarly happy ending. (And note how the film has shrewdly emphasized this difference by means of casting. Representing great literature are Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, two classy and enormously respected performers who have regularly been associated with literary works: Hoffman has done Shakespeare and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, while Thompson earned one of her Oscars for writing a screenplay based on Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. Representing cheery pabulum for the masses is Will Farrell, best known for his appearances on Saturday Night Live and in lowbrow teen comedies. )

The film's story, then, becomes the Education of Harold Crick; for he finally reads the novel himself, learns to appreciate its power and beauty, and comes to realize that Hilbert was right: to make Eiffel's Death and Taxes a great novel, he must accept his fate and calmly proceed to his death. Thus, it would seem, the argument has been resolved: all of the main characters now prefer tragic literature to comedic trash, and all the film has to do is to conclude in the grim manner that everyone agrees is best. But I blurted out my big spoiler in the very first sentence of this review: this film is a comedy, and hence it actually ends, according to Hilbert's formula, as a comedy should end.

And the reasons for this reversal, to say the least, are paradoxical. According to Eiffel, when Crick became a man who was willing to accept the appropriateness of his death, he also became a man who deserved to live. The other characters she created and killed off, it seems, were characters she looked down upon as inferiors; when Crick evolves into someone whose opinions she can admire, she can no longer bring herself to kill him. Characters who naively prefer comedies deserve to be in tragedies; characters who wisely prefer tragedies deserve to be in comedies. By choosing a protagonist who turned out to be more than he seemed, Eiffel has been forced into writing an uncharacteristic comedy, and she and the other characters in the film now appear to prefer comedies. (Told by Hilbert that the novel's new ending makes it only "okay," Eiffel responds, "I think I'm fine with okay.") By the film's logic, their new predilection for comedy means that they have devolved into characters who now deserve tragic fates, but the film refuses to deny them their happy endings.

Indeed, although a film that was apparently striving to be unconventional, Stranger Than Fiction concludes with the numbingly conventional message of innumerable comedies: all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, so you have to stop and smell the roses. Almost all of the film's characters have been unwisely obsessed with being on time and doing their work instead of enjoying life to the fullest: Crick's life has been a monotonous routine; Eiffel has been sitting at her typewriter chain-smoking, struggling to meet her deadline, while watched over by assistant Penny Escher (Queen Latifah), who is determined to get her novel finished in time; Hilbert works hard as a faculty lifeguard but doesn't go swimming himself; Crick's co-worker Dave (Tony Hale) has never pursued his lifelong dream of attending Space Camp. But in the end, everything is hunky-dory: Crick can look forward to a satisfying and variegated life with new girlfriend Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal); Eiffel may finally quit smoking, presumably to pursue more healthy activities, and Penny will allow her to miss her deadline in order to rework her novel at a leisurely pace; Hilbert finally dives into the pool; and thanks to Crick, Dave receives an invitation to Space Camp. These characters have now learned to appreciate all the simple things that "are here to save our lives": "Bavarian sugar cookies, a familiar hand, a kind loving gesture, a loving embrace, an offer of comfort, hospital gurneys, nose plugs, an uneaten Danish, soft spoken secrets, guitars, and the occasional piece of fiction." If you wait for the very end of the credits, you can even hear the film's sloppy sentiments conveyed in a song telling you to listen to "the child within you" and "don't be afraid to be young and free."

Only one character does not finally convert to a new lifestyle of anarchic fun, and that is because she doesn't need to; Pascal has been that way all along, which is also why she is the film's only completely unbelievable character. An anachronistic child of the 1960s who refuses to pay a portion of her taxes to protest against defense spending, Pascal dropped out of Harvard Law School to become a baker, finding fulfillment by running her own little bakery and dispensing tasty treats to a homeless man (Larry Neumann Jr.) and other regular customers. And although she initially seems to despise Crick, all he has to do is to show her his best hurt-puppy expression and she flings herself into his arms. Clearly, she is a symbol of everything Crick wants and needs, not a real person, and if she is another one of Eiffel's creations, the novelist should be ashamed of herself. In a way, I would have preferred a film that eliminated the Pascal character and instead drew Crick into a romantic relationship with Eiffel, despite their age differences, because she is obviously more intelligent, more witty, and more stimulating company than Pascal. But what would a woman like Eiffel see in a man like Crick? In well-constructed comedies, I suppose, female romantic interests must be precisely tailored to match the limitations of their male counterparts.

Overall, then, Stranger Than Fiction is a film that inspires deeply conflicted responses. In all respects, it is a superbly well-made piece of entertainment, that may succeed both in making you laugh and moving you to tears, and while predicting how the Oscars will turn out is always problematic, one hopes at least that Zach Helm is nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Emma Thompson for Best Supporting Actress. On the other hand, in the context of other stories about the plight of fictional characters who discover that they are fictional characters, ranging from Hubbard's gem to Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author (1912), the film must be regarded as disappointingly superficial, employing its strange premise only to convey all-too-familiar nostrums. It is a film designed to make you feel good (the usual goal of popular fiction), not to make you think (the usual goal of great works of literature, and of science fiction). Of course, this is all that audiences seem to want from Hollywood these days, which is why the film will probably be a big box-office hit. But if a gifted novelist like Karen Eiffel actually found herself involved in the shamelessly sentimental contrivances of this film, she would recognize the only possible explanation was that she was actually a manipulated character in somebody's cynically conceived fantasy, and she would be screaming, like Hubbard's Mike de Wolf, "Get me out of this mess!"

© 2006 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.