Stop Making Sense
Stranger Than Fiction and the Question of Creative Responsibility
Stranger Than Fiction and the Question of Creative Responsibility
Stranger Than Fiction is a perfect film with one tiny flaw: it doesn’t actually make sense. But such flagrant disregard for narrative logic is inseparable from the film’s charm, and whether directly inspired by Charlie Kaufman’s cinema of self-analysis, it’s probably safe to say that the film wouldn’t exist without Kaufman’s precedent for non-linear, anti-logic meta-narratives. Stranger Than Fiction is less lacerating in its wit and less dark and scabrous in its insights than Kaufman, but considerably more affecting. It’s also closer to perfection as a post-millennial, pre-apocalypse schizophrenic romantic comedy, and confirms that the schizo comedy more or less invented by Kaufman (after some early flirtations by Woody Allen) is the natural evolution of the rom-com genre. Current times are far too precarious for a simple “boy-meets-girl” scenario to adequately distract us from our collective anxieties anymore.
Reflecting what amounts to a global identity crisis, the film is populated by semi-functional lost souls doing what they can to keep their heads above the waters of despair. An OCD IRS worker (Will Ferrell) falls in love with a tattooed Harvard drop-out and failed revolutionary, resigned to baking cookies for a better world (the ever-enrapturing Maggie Gyllenhaal); an acclaimed author and suicide manqué suffers from guilt and uncertainty over her literary gift and her wont for killing off characters (a deglamorized Emma Thompson is the tortured soul of the film); a literature professor for whom books are more real than people (another terrific turn by Dustin Hoffman, well on his way to career resurrection in offbeat supporting comedy roles). All characters in search of something if only they knew what, who have taken refuge in their routines in order to survive. Such eccentric characters are perfectly at home in what amounts to a self-reflective, self-referential, meta-comedy, in which fictional beings grasp to be real.
Stranger Than Fiction concerns a character in a novel who realizes that he is part of a fictional narrative and attempts to break out of the story (the inevitability of his own death) and meet his maker. The moment he does, he becomes a character in her life, which thereby becomes fiction—the movie we are seeing. It was impossible for me not to try and figure out if Stranger Than Fiction made sense, even while I was engaged in the blissful act of watching it. Fortunately, it was equally impossible to decide with any certainty, and in the end I realized it didn’t really matter much. Since we don’t have the opportunity to read the novel that Katherine Eiffel is writing, we can’t know how much of the protagonist’s life (i.e., the movie) is already captured by her fiction. Logically, however, the movie cannot really cohere, since Harold Crick (named after one of the inventors of DNA?), by finding out that a novel is being written about his life, would surely change the fiction’s trajectory entirely. He hears the author narrating his life, for example, but he doesn’t hear a narration about his hearing the narration, as would presumably be the case, within the (apparent) logic of the movie. Such an idea would force the story to replicate ad infinitum, spinning worlds within worlds, fictions within fictions, mirrors inside mirrors—a reflective universe in which there would be, finally, no object to be reflected.
Stranger Than Fiction shies away from the giddier and more psychedelic implications; wisely but also perhaps timidly, it does not venture where shamans and schizophrenics are compelled to tread, staying instead on the safer (and sweeter) ground of life-affirming (and death-defeating) romantic comedy. It flirts with tragedy, but never dares to consummate. It dips its toes into the dark waters of madness, but never plunges in. What makes Stranger Than Fiction different from other feel-good movies is that it actually earns our good feelings. It doesn’t sell itself short to please us. It’s eccentric and unique enough to create a sense of uncertainty as to where it’s going, and the resulting tension—the sense of the unexpected and the feeling that anything can happen—creates a fair imitation both our own lives and of Crick’s particular terror of losing control. As with Kaufman, almost every line in the film comes as a surprise; the scenes keep us guessing and the film seems fresh, uncalculated, uncontrived, effortless. The energy and lightness of Marc Forster’s direction, and the playful ingenuity of Zach Helm’s script, give the impression that the filmmakers are surprising even themselves. The film crackles with laughter and pathos, the laughs are easy and grateful, the tears sweet and unsullied by sentimentality. The beautiful irony of Stranger Than Fiction is that, by making Crick semi-fictional within his own life, he comes to seem far more real than most movie protagonists ever do. I think it's the best film of 2006.
The film is so breezily anarchic that there is even some doubt whether it will wind up as a tragedy (the IRS man might have to die for his sins). One of the touching quirks of the movie (and of Will Ferrell’s pitch-perfect performance) is that the “soulless” civil servant is the most innocent and endearing character in the film, while it is the tormented artist-writer whose soul is in jeopardy. When Eiffel discovers her character is a living, breathing person—not merely the concatenation of her genius—she is forced to face up to a new and disturbing sense of responsibility. The question arises: as a “creator,” is being true to her tale necessarily “right” for the character in it? This is not exactly a moral question; it goes deeper than mere morality, which after all entails ordinary human relations within an ordinary social context. Stranger Than Fiction raises the question of a God who lacks compassion for its creations, forced to face up to her own conscience by those same creations. Perhaps s/he even became a creator in the first place in order to learn such compassion? By her decision to abandon the necessary ruthlessness of tragedy and let Harold live, Eiffel may become a “lesser” (i.e. less-obsessed) writer, but she becomes a better person. She has learned that there is more to real fiction than taking lives, that there is a time for mercy as well as sacrifice. As any creator worth her salt knows, there is no tragedy without comedy, no laughter without tears.