Is great writing worth a life? Great writers are mostly depressed, or prematurely dead. Would Hemingway have put that gun in his mouth if he weren’t a writer? Would Virginia Woolf have drowned herself if she’d never picked up a pen? Though great books bring light and understanding to thousands of readers, it’s seldom their authors (or their characters) who fare well. In Stranger than Fiction Emma Thompson plays a great writer, called Karen Eiffel, who is losing her wits. Karen writes books about death, but her latest book has no ending. She needs to work out how to kill a character named Harold Crick. Trouble is, unbeknownst to Karen, Harold Crick exists in the real world. And he’s started to hear her voice.
As a premise “man hears a voice narrating his life” is pretty out-there. Right from the start it would seem we’re in Charlie Kaufman country, the same place Being John Malkovich hailed from, home to Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But Stranger than Fiction is not a Charlie Kaufman script, and while it shows his influence, it doesn’t share his heart. Kaufman is a writer of the Kubrick school, his movies are intellectual exercises – inquisitive, provocative, anything but whimsical. It wouldn’t even be a question whether or not to kill Harold Crick in a Kaufman movie – his characters don’t matter, it’s only the ideas they represent that do.
Casting Will Ferrell as Harold Crick is neither a safe bet nor a particularly risky choice. He is right for straight acting because he doesn’t look funny and right for comedy because he possesses wit. Jim Carey was a much bigger risk when Peter Weir cast him in The Truman Show because Jim Carey is crazy. Ferrell doesn’t have Carey’s manic charisma, but he’s also easier to like because he doesn’t go to Carey’s extremes. There’s an innocence about Ferrell’s characters, even when he’s acting lewd – a sense that he can be hurt should anyone retaliate. When he goes in search of the writer who controls his life, we know he’s means to find her, not to do her harm.
Ferrell visits a psychiatrist and tells her he is hearing a voice: “[talking] about me. Accurately… and with a better vocabulary.” His psychiatrist sends him to Dustin Hoffman, a literature professor, who asks what kind of story Ferrell thinks he might be in. Between them they determine his life is either a comedy or a tragedy. To that end, Dustin asks Ferrell: “Have you met anyone recently who might loathe the very core of you?” Enter: the girl.
Maggie Gyllenhaal doesn’t play romantic leads very often. Directors are mostly scared of her, I think. Of her height, of her wit, of her antic nature and her question mark voice. She is Meg Ryan with balls and the potential to play adults on screen. She is funny and she gets to have sex. From the moment she meets Ferrell he’s thinking about her naked. She comes to the movie to wake him up, to get him to start dreaming. The fact that she doesn’t look like Angelina Jolie only reinforces hope: she’s attainable! Hauteur doesn’t become Gyllenhaal because she empathizes too well.
Empathy is key to how Stranger than Fiction ends. The whole movie is about forsaking art, allowing for how others feel – and giving writers’ a break. When I was young I thought William Faulkner was talking about characters in books when he wrote: “Kill your darlings”. Writing seemed cruel like that, for an aficionado of happy endings. Some people will think I’m sentimental, and that Stranger than Fiction ends on a sentimental note. But I think great writing is over-praised for its sad truths. No-one should gaze into the abyss everyday. That’s why we invented Hollywood, and candy floss, and happy endings – because it’s ok to lighten up a little. Greatness can wait.