Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is an ordinary man. Average to a fault. There is nothing interesting at all about Harold Crick. He lives his life by way of routine. Catalog illustrations in the style of “Fight Club” illustrate his apartment and his prefabricated and disposable life. He is a person, yet one living such a flat dimensionless life as to almost become a placeholder for a person. And this makes perfect sense because Harold Crick is a character, the main character, in an unfinished novel approaching completion, whose conclusion will also claim Harold Crock’s life.
Like some comedians, Will Ferrell has always excelled at projecting the angst of the ordinary man. In line with Tom Hanks and Jim Carrey, his comedy is rooted in bewilderment at the world and at himself. His role as Harold Crick sets him up as the ultimate everyman, so bland he barely exists and yet possessing a soul beneath the blandness that is on the surface of getting free. “Stranger than Fiction” is the story of Harold Crick discovering that he has a soul inside him, rather than a ledger book. It is the story of a man confronting the larger questions of life and existence and liberating himself from the routine of the mechanical way he had been living his life.
Harold Crick is an IRS auditor whose life is broken down into numbers. Into the hours and minutes of the day, the dollars and cents on the account book and it is by these measurements that his days pass and are measured through the record keeping of his watch. Having suborned himself to the watch, to the mechanical and the routine, Harold Crick has become a kind of machine himself, subsuming his hopes and dreams and living a life of senselessly regimented precision. Like the precision of the machine it has no goal or direction. It is a tool at the service of others.
With the destruction of his watch, the stage is set for the man to emerge from behind the shadow of the machine he had become.When Harold Crick encounters Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an anti-authoritarian baker who questions the point of his entire work process, the man behind the machine begins to emerge looking in bewilderment at the world. A world he has never really seen. It is a world of strangeness and wonder, of warmth and music that calls out to him. First among that world is Ana herself with whom Harold forms a human connection and falls in love.
Harold has begun hearing the voice of his authoress, Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) narrating his life. He at first believes he is going mad but the process of narration uncovers the circuitry behind the functioning of his life. As he sees himself as he was made to be, Harold begins to wake up and become more than the machine, more than the tool, more than the character in someone else’s story. He becomes a man.
Every writer of fiction knows that point at which a character begins to come to life, to speak in his or her own voice, with barely any input from you. It is the point at which the writer is comfortable and the story really begins. Characters who do not come alive, remain “Bags of Bones” as Somerset Maugham put it. Karen Eiffel has had trouble understanding how to kill Harold Crick and in doing so meaningfully complete his life, in no small part because Harold Crick was not alive yet. His life had no meaning and therefore neither would his death. But once Harold Crick comes alive, she faces an even more difficult dilemma, because how can you kill a man who truly has come alive at last.
Harold Crick’s evolution from a bag of bones to a human being with a soul comes about as he sees the mechanistic routine of his life for the prison that it is. A prison not entirely of his own making. The birth of Harold Crick’s soul comes as he reaches out, playing the guitar, bringing flowers, falling in love and struggling to live and be born as a true soul through his renewed experience of the world. Yet it is precisely this rebirth which provides Karen Eiffel with the insight of how to kill him. The tragic irony of his ‘spring of the spirit’, his renewal contrasted with the means of his death, the mechanistic routing of bus and child. Yet in the end Karen Eiffel cannot take his life. His willingness to die even though he has a life to live, because he appreciates the meaning of her work, has made him more than a character, he has become a partner.
Questions can be raised over the nature of the world that Harold Crick and Karen Eiffel inhabit, a world that it appears she can reshape, not only by way of determining Harold Crick’s life, but also that of the other characters at the scene of the accident, who are also present during Karen Eiffel’s other plans for killing Harold Crick. Yet Karen Eiffel also appears to inhabit the same world they do and is shocked and baffled when Harold Crick turns out to be a real person. Perhaps it is simply a statement that the writer of great fiction manipulates the nature of our reality to shape our world through their work. “Stranger than Fiction” certainly does, providing a moving and powerful story that resonates with the drives of the human spirit.