Uh oh. Someone's written another comedy about writers! Second-only to comedies about filmmaking in its self-indulgence, this genre is an automatic green-light at production companies. Maybe it's because of that “write what you know” thing, or maybe it's an easy way to appear clever. Dating back to the 20's, Hollywood has considered itself the highest form of entertainment rather than the mere purveyor of such. That's how we get movies like Stranger than Fiction.
What's different about this movie is that despite telling a story-with-a-story that's really kind of stupid, it's not as bad (or pretentious) as it could have been. Despite opening with Will Ferrell brushing his teeth.
Why Will Ferrell? It's almost as if Hollywood has decreed that no comedy shall emerge from that sacred space without Will Ferrell. I don't know why this should be, as he's nothing special—I have no quarrel with him aside from his ubiquity, but is he really that much funnier than everyone else? Did someone see Talladega Nights and insist this was the guy to round out Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman and Maggie Gyllenhaal? Much to my relief, Ferrell is never conspicuously funny in this film, and maybe that's the point his Will and his agent are trying to make. “Look! I'm not just stupid! Remember that cheerleader on SNL? Well don't!”
Anyway. Harold is a very boring IRS agent who sees everything in numbers and has no life. We get to partake in this with translucent numbers and graphics laid over the film reminiscent of effects used in the South Korean film Please Take My Cat, among others. One day, as Harold is counting his toothbrush strokes, he hears a British lady narrating this activity. He stops. So does she. He starts again. As does she. This continues through the next several days: as Harold goes about his business, he hears it played back at him. What follows is one of those “I'm not crazy!” movies where he discovers, eventually, that someone is actually writing a book about him and is going to kill him off. The character, that is. But if he's the character, doesn't that mean he'll die?
All of this, including an unlikely romance between IRS agent and liberal tax-dodging baker, comes off pretty standard. There aren't many surprises. But I found it very entertaining for a few reasons. Mostly because it was like a less pretentious and more commercial version of I Heart Huckabees, which has a similar existential theme but took itself way seriously while being conspicuously funnier. (And yes, I know I was supposed to like Huckabees. I didn't.) But on top of that, there were little touches here and there which showed that someone had actually written it.
For instance, I liked when Harold decides to start narrating himself. And when he and his love interest, the really attractive Maggie G, are filmed conversing over the weird effect of the middle of a double-length bus, where it accordions in and out and which holds a personal fascination for me. Or when he comes over for dinner and rises to help her with the dishes, only to have her say, “Don't worry about it, I'm only putting them in the sink.” That is natural. That is something people would say to each other. And stuff like that hardly ever makes it into the movies.
Now, the big logical problem I have with the story is that Emma Thompson narrates everything except Harold's discovery that he's a character. So if she knows everything going on in his life, whether she's controlling him or he's controlling her narrative, she should be aware of him screaming at the heavens for her to shut up. Furthermore, without the parts where Harold's screaming at the heavens for her to shut up, it's a really boring story. This would not be a movie if he wasn't aware of his status as a character in it. But we're led to believe she's this brilliant novelist who gets college courses taught about her work. This would imply that this screenplay, too, is as good as her book. Which would actually put her somewhere just above “hack” in the hierarchy of writers. I don't know about you, but for me credibility is lacking. But then, I sometimes forget we're supposed to ignore paradox. What do I want for $3 at the second-run theater?
Actually, this movie is perfect for a second-run theater. Solid value, not too much thought, but satisfying on a weeknight. Come to think of it, my narrator wouldn't have a lot to say about me, either.