By Kevin Rollins
With Stranger Than Fiction, Will Ferrell may well escape his typical role as jester and move to be taken as a serious actor after his genuine performance as Harold Crick, a befuddled IRS auditor who finds out he is a character in someone else's story. The movie has implications about enlightenment and our philosophy of life, as well as the role of the individual in creating happiness for ourselves and others.
Crick’s enlightenment is facilitated by being knocked out of his dull daily routine by happening to hear an author’s narration of his mechanical (almost obsessive-compulsive) behavior and his Pavlovian-dog-like responses to his wrist watch which he has set to precisely guide his life. His prior actions are a product not of actively choosing, but of a predetermined formula for perceiving and responding to his surroundings. He lives as he is written – a cardboard character programmed do things precisely and repetitively – much like a robot.
Hearing the voice maddens the character and he seeks out its source with the aid of a literature professor played by Dustin Hoffman. As he gets closer to the author, he is also becoming unhinged and less mechanical. He can’t function in his everyday life, but he begins to excel at taking alternative courses of action. When he meets the author, who is wonderfully portrayed by a chain-smoking, cynical Emma Thompson, we are no longer sure who is in control. The author/character relationship challenges our thinking about whether we move our own lives forward, or whether we are moving forward at the behest of some unseen puppeteer. However, strings seem to pull in the opposite direction as our everyman becomes a hero and the author and character interact and influence each other.
The desire for self-control is brought to life in a hilarious scene where Ferrell’s character attempts to stop participating in the story by sitting in his apartment on the couch doing absolutely nothing. He resists the urge to answer the phone ringing, as well as the knock at the door; he doesn’t move to get the mail which is being delivered, nor will he change the channel on the TV. Without spoiling the movie… reality does manage to get through and force him to act. Self-control does exist, but so does reality and they cannot be separated from each other. External factors do govern us even while we can choose our responses to them.
Further, it moves us to consider the result of having our choices and actions read back to us immediately as we chose them, only in a different (British) voice with a “better vocabulary.” The effect on Crick, which I believe would be the effect on most of us, is to make him feel rather foolish to the degree which his routine and habits constrain him from attaining happiness.
Just as important as his interactions with the author, is the story of Crick’s romance with anarchist baker Ana Pascal, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. The characters begin as opponents, he the stiff-necked IRS auditor, and she the free-spirited war-tax-resister. To him she represents everything he is not: well-loved by the community, creative, and able to break or follow the rules according to her desires. Through her he can see what he needs to see in himself. This is one of the ways which we serve each other, and are interdependent, by being windows into each other's souls.
Pascal goes through a process of transformation herself in seeing the good in the taxman. Although Stranger than Fiction is Crick’s story, she perhaps utters one of the most important lines in the movie from a free liberal point-of-view. When asked how she went from being a Harvard law student to being a radical baker, she explains that she wanted to be a lawyer so she could save the world, but once at school she spent all her time baking for study groups and not attending to her grades. She realized that her true skill for improving the world was in baking cookies. Ana Pascal derives pleasure from making people happy. Although the word “socialist” is bandied about, it is clear she is an entrepreneur of the John Mackey variety.
Essential good comes not from “fighting the system” or undoing injustice brought on by external forces, it comes from our ability to help others achieve their own happiness. Not everyone is an artistic baker who creates amazing delicacies, but everywhere people are working to reduce the cost of happiness for others, doing good for them in ways visible and hidden. We do this on a personal level with our friends, family, and colleagues, and we do it for people whom we will never meet but will nonetheless benefit from the derivative effects of our efforts to build and innovate in our work. In economics we call this the “free market.”
The taxman is unloved because he is precisely the opposite of the entrepreneur. He takes wealth from us to pay for things which don’t help society (or at least we think a good bit is unhelpful). He does not operate on any principle other than that he has been sent to enforce a technical rule against a technical violation. My grandfather, who was an IRS auditor, often remarks that he should have gone into car sales, “because nobody likes to pay taxes, but everyone is happy when they are buying a car.”
One of my friends compared Stranger Than Fiction to The Truman Show and while both stories peel the onion of reality and feature a comic man facing serious issues, Stranger Than Fiction is much deeper and thoughtful, more like Groundhog Day, with the main character wrestling with the basic issues of the quality of life, our choices, and how they change one’s view of death. The Truman Show is about escaping an illusory world, whereas Groundhog Day and Stranger Than Fiction are about seeing ourselves and living as we ought to.
There is much food for thought in Stranger Than Fiction. There isn’t necessarily a dichotomy between being a free-thinker and being an automaton, we can live both lives simultaneously. One is wrapped in the other. We are both pawns and chess masters. Doing good is an effect of pursuing happiness for yourself and others. These are important concepts and hopefully they will not be missed by the viewing public. If the film does not get an Oscar nod for Best Picture, it hopefully will pick one up for Best Original Screenplay for its writer Zach Helm. It is a rare movie which delights on multiple levels and draws viewers into personally taking inventory and evaluating our philosophy of life.
Kevin D. Rollins is the editor of The Free Liberal.