“Little did he know”: A third-person omniscient that, for all intents and purposes, rules all of our lives. That’s the nature of human existence. Hindsight is 20/20. We can only learn—and live—as we go along, and there are no shortcuts in life’s lessons. On top of it all, we can’t get our time back. We can’t rewind and redo. If I’m being honest, all of that has sort of bothered me over the years, growing up. I’ve had my issues with it, the way the casual mundanity of life can have you waking up in a year asking where it all went, and how we so often get stuck in the monotony of surviving that we miss out on living. When I first saw Stranger than Fiction in 2006 as a freshman in high school, I hadn’t lived enough to truly get the gravity of the film’s message: To live your life to the damn fullest no matter what. I hadn’t even started navigating the complexities of being a teenager. But 15 years later, I feel intimately familiar with the film’s heart and soul in a way I never could when I first fell in love with the picture because I have, at times, been living a similarly blasé life to Harold Crick.
Stranger Than Fiction follows Crick, a quiet and contemplative IRS agent (a pitch-perfect Will Ferrell) who one day realizes that a woman’s voice has been narrating his rather boring and routine daily life. The mysterious narration begins to plague his curiosity and then forces him to reckon with the life he’s been living when it claims that (little does he know) his death is imminent. On Crick’s quest to find the woman seemingly writing his fate and convince her to reconsider, he broadens his capacity for experience and discovers what it means to live a full life in love and passion for all things.
As an almost 30-year-old, the stagnancy of Crick’s life is painfully close to my own. It comes down to a lot of things: My hang-ups, my comforts, my perceived capacity for change. Director Marc Forster and screenwriter Zach Helm paint this picture in spades with Crick, who eats, sleeps and spends his free time all alone with only his work to keep him company. After college, my life followed a similar trajectory where I was working to live and spending my downtime recouping and zoning out on palatable TV and junk food. While Crick’s life was a little more clean-cut and meticulous—a fun on-screen control panel overlay throughout the film gives this an incredible sense of routine and rigidity for emphasis—the foundation was the same for us both. Neither of us seemed to be going much of anywhere. It isn’t exactly bleak—after all, anything can truly change the course of life—but it is common and cyclical, and once you start thinking about it, it becomes something close to grim. Something shocks Crick out of it, though: That voice.
Throughout his struggle to locate this all-knowing woman (whom Crick eventually finds as writer Karen Eiffel, played by Emma Thompson), the taxman ends up on a path that drastically alters the course of his life by forcing him to face the truth of it all: That he won’t be here, able to experience things, forever. He moves in with a friend after his apartment is accidentally demolished (an incident that proves he does not control his fate); he takes up a musical instrument; he goes out on a limb and tries to build a connection with a woman he is auditing who, unsurprisingly, can’t stand him. And, shocker, it all begins to work out in his favor. A life simply lived becomes a life truly fulfilled—and Crick begins to see himself as living proof of that concept. He starts to form a romance with his audit target (a baker played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), he buys a guitar, he starts living in the moment. Eiffel describes it in one of her omniscient monologues as “resuscitating his life and reviving his hope,” which I think is pretty damn accurate, speaking as someone who made similar efforts over the years to revitalize their will to live another day.
With severe depression, it can be damn near impossible to move through the world—and sometimes, it makes you feel like it’s better not to. That, maybe, you shouldn’t. It’s a struggle to ascend again from that dark cave, and it takes time and effort. But when things pick back up, when that small glimmer of hope finally shines through, it can be a harbinger of a new life ahead. It all just starts falling into place and, suddenly, we can breathe again. Maybe that sounds dramatic and you’re wondering, “Why are all of these little things so important? After all, they’re just hobbies and hang-outs and connections that may, one day, with time, wither. Nothing too grandiose in the scheme of things.”
Well, Eiffel wrote it best in her revamped ending (yes, the one where she decides against killing Crick): “And we must remember that all these things—the nuances, the anomalies, the subtleties—which we assume only accessorize our days are, in fact, here for a much larger and nobler cause. They are here to save our lives. I know the idea seems strange. But I also know that it just so happens to be true.”
We see Crick come into this realization in real time, when he faces his death (getting hit by a bus after saving a child in harm’s way) with arms wide open and comes out the other side alive to tell the tale. That same realization is all too true in real life.
Through Crick’s arc, I have the film to credit for the way I’ve been able to reframe my own view on mortality. It’s not an easy subject to grapple with—and Crick doesn’t exactly have the smoothest time with it himself. The scene where he and his mentor-in-literature (Dustin Hoffman) discuss that his death is the only true way for Eiffel’s story to end is beyond heartbreaking. Ferrell does that thing we all love to see comedians do: Play drama beautifully, with personal nuance in each bit of dialogue, each small and large moment. He taps into the realization of his fate quietly, but can’t hold back his emotions. It’s a resignation we all fear, but know will come no matter what. He falls apart at the seams, but knows what he has to do. In this performance, there is a mirror. It showed me all of the times I feared for my life, the big and the small, and showed me what I could do to maximize that adrenaline rush in my veins. How I could use my fear of death—and, frankly, my fear of existing—and channel it into a lust for life. It’s not easy. It takes time. But it is worth it. Harold Crick knows it. And I know it. We’ve lived it.
Disillusionment isn’t niche. There are so many people existing in the mundane like Crick and I, afraid of how life will end for them. But you don’t have to be. Not when you can smell the flowers, watch the sunset, flirt with a pretty person, dance with friends late into the night, discover something new in the park or the museum or on the internet. Life is beautiful and it can—and will—be beautiful until the end, if you let it. I know that now, and I have Harold Crick to thank for it.
Lex Briscuso is an entertainment, film and culture writer who eats, sleeps, and breathes exceptional horror, sweeping dramas, and top-notch acting. She is a news desk writer at /Film and has bylines at FANGORIA, The Guardian, Shudder’s The Bite and EUPHORIA. Her horror radio show, YOUR NICHE IS DEAD, is live Mondays 5pm ET. She tweets @nikonamerica.