A good friend of mine is an undergraduate student at Princeton University. Using her liberal arts education to the furthest extent, she decided to major in the cutting-edge field of philosophy. When I asked her about what she found so fascinating – why on Earth she would bother contemplating “I think therefore I am” her whole life – she countered with this: “My current thesis topic is the state of existence of fictional characters. Isn’t that cool?” I had to concede, and we’re not the only ones who think so.
“Stranger Than Fiction,” a new film staring Will Ferrell and Emma Thompson, further explores the philosophical merit of delving into the question: at what point does a character become real? Ferrell plays stodgy Internal Revenue Service agent Harold Crick, a man who awakens one day to find his life being narrated by reclusive, crazed author Karen Eiffel, played by Thompson.
As he engages in his standardized morning routine of counting the number of toothbrush strokes, he is interrupted by Thompson’s musical chime narrating that same action. The voice goes on to cheerfully narrate the precise time he takes to tie the single knot in his necktie (that apparently also makes his neck look fat), the minutes and seconds it will take Harold to reach the bus, and that “little did he know that events had been set in motion, that would lead to his imminent death.”
Harold Crick is a man of numbers and science, and when he hears a voice narrating his life that no one else can hear, he gives psychiatry a try. He is subsequently informed that he is a schizophrenic, for hearing a voice that predicts your death is a clear symptom of the disease. Unwilling to accept this diagnosis, the psychiatrist dryly suggests seeking the advice of a professor of literature – enter Dustin Hoffman.
Hoffman who seems to relish his role as Professor Hilbert, advises Harold that the best way to deal with the precarious situation, is to use fictional literature as a template for deciphering what kind of a story he is in (we are informed that comedies end with a wedding, and tragedies end with death).
As Harold becomes increasingly faced with his own mortality, his life begins to drastically change. In the earlier scenes of the film, cute visual effects were provided to illustrate the extremes of Harold’s obsession with numbers. One of my favorites is the scene where Harold walks into a men’s restroom and immediately calculates the percentage of soap left in the dispenser.
However, as Harold begins to discover his love for one of his clients (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), guitars and not having to wear a tie everyday, the constant barrage of numbers on the screen stop, and we are left watching Ferrell give an excellent performance of a man who is starting to come alive.
The message is a familiar one: carpe diem, seize the day, life’s short, etc. Clich?? Maybe. True? Definitely, and “Stranger Than Fiction” portrays it in a sweet, melancholy and ultimately charming way.