There’s very little anyone can do to make the Romantic Comedy genre feel new again, which prompted some movie journalists to dedicate eulogies to it a few years ago and looking at the market right now and how lackluster the adaptations of the usual Nicholas Sparks/John Green bullshit are performing financially, the funeral rites were more than well deserved. The best anyone can do to make the genre stand out these days is to deconstruct its very essence, showing audiences that romantic relationships aren’t all sex and rainbows like what the indie smash hits ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004) and 500 DAYS OF SUMMER (2009) showed with their great but bittersweet as fuck stories. STRANGER THAN FICTION (2006) is that one movie that wanted to be like the aforementioned examples but fell short of being anything original, which sucks considering its story:
In STRANGER THAN FICTION, the boring existence of IRS taxman Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) takes a turn for the weird when he finds out that some omniscient person is narrating his entire life and this sentient British voice just sentenced him to discover how to live, love and then abruptly die.
With a self-aware premise like that, you’d be forgiven for expecting meta humor alongside a stimulating new take on a tired genre but as I mentioned earlier, that’s not the case for this particular movie. In its favor, the entire opening act was fucking hilarious, especially when it culminates with Harold fruitlessly trying to confront the voice that just sentenced him to death for no apparent reason. While it doesn’t launch into an overblown commentary about how stupid the genre can be like what 500 DAYS OF SUMMER did with an abundance of hipster aesthetics to help its cause, STRANGER THAN FICTION at least introduced a familiar setup in a new light but it never followed it up. The idea of having a disembodied voice that only Harold can hear was squandered when it was limited to being nothing more than a fancy gimmick to sell what is otherwise a generic Romantic Comedy story about a dude with no personality falling for a free spirited girl. If you never heard of that plot before, you either live under a rock or you’re fucking lying.
Perhaps the biggest sin STRANGER THAN FICTION commits is literally forgetting its own fucking premise in the middle act when it decides to lock down on the budding relationship of Harold and Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhall). Now don’t get me wrong, a well told romantic story isn’t something I hate and the two leads in this story were fun to watch even if they were serviceable at most but when they’re in a movie that had a premise that was just begging for self-aware commentaries on the genre or at the very least make a bunch of jokes at the expense of the highly stereotypical characters, it’s a frustrating waste when the movie emphasizes whimsical character interactions over self-awareness.
Every now and then, there’d be some well appreciated genre analysis from Prof. Hubert (Dustin Hoffman) and famed author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) but these scenes are too far apart to mean anything in the long run, even if they do provide some funny and witty insight to Harold’s plight. For the most part, Prof. Hubert only exists to point out just how weird shit is for Harold while Karen Eiffel is just your usual nihilistic artist who only becomes an actual character by the final act because she’s too busy whining about how fucking shitty life is for the movie’s entire first two-thirds. A pity because, again, both characters were played well and had interesting stories to themselves.
I wasn’t expecting STRANGER THAN FICTION to be a documentary that listed down every misconception the Romantic Comedy has about real life relationships nor was I expecting it to be as genre-bending as ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND but when you have a movie that has a guy trying to fight the fates are embodied by a person who literally wrote him into existence, there better be some fourth wall getting royally fucked or at least a joke where the main character utters “Fuck my life” and his author promptly complies. Instead, STRANGER THAN FICTION is more than content to point out a few of the genre’s well known faults such as the over-reliance on formula and jot down the commonly overused tropes the genre is known to use like character stereotypes before going back to the usual romantic relationship between the awkward leads separated by a massive gulf of Unfulfilled Sexual Tension.
Rather than standing out, STRANGER THAN FICTION falls more in line with the Romantic Comedies that Tom Hanks starred in during the 90’s, specifically SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE (1993) and YOU’VE GOT MAIL (1998). Movies like those were what solidified the formula that most Romantic Comedies would then follow to the letter in the succeeding decades, and STRANGER THAN FICTION is no exception to the rule. Its use of the Creation Vs. Creator conflict is never fully realized as the possible moral ramifications such life wrecking realizations would bring upon the story’s characters are only hinted at and never fully utilized because the whole meta thing is really nothing but a quirk to add some character to a bland romantic story where the potential to do something new with the genre takes a backseat for some sweet lovey-dovey scenes powered by cookies and baking that take center-stage in the narrative.
While the previously mentioned Tom Hanks movies have the powers of Tom Hanks backing them up, STRANGER THAN FICTION doesn’t have the same level of charisma and is only remembered for a wacky premise. Couple in a heartwarming but predictable ending and you won’t be faulted for forgetting the whole fucking thing a after watching it. It’s far from bad and it can be fun but when it comes to memorable Romantic Comedies, STRANGER THAN FICTION is more of a one night stand than an actual relationship.
Check out the following links for more!