Stranger Than Fiction Should Have Been Will Ferrell’s Big Dramatic Break

Movies Features Will Ferrell
Stranger Than Fiction Should Have Been Will Ferrell’s Big Dramatic Break

With the advantage of hindsight, one can sometimes look back at an actor’s filmography and point to a specific moment where a career could have diverged from the track it was on. These moments can be positive or negative, highlights or pitfalls in the resume of a Hollywood performer, but they’re inflection points where change was most likely to happen—“what if?” questions waiting to be asked. And of all these moments in prominent Hollywood careers, the one that always stands out to me is Will Ferrell’s inspired performance in 2006 fantasy dramedy Stranger Than Fiction, a role that earned him no small amount of critical praise at the time. But although the film was a modest success, the takeaway 17 years later is that it failed to act as a springboard for the big, dramatic breakout that Ferrell’s performance truly deserved. This was the moment when Ferrell could potentially have transitioned into the more thoughtful second act of an already wildly successful comedy career, the phase that perhaps could have involved awards statues and career-redefining performances. But instead, he continued to be cast almost entirely in the broad comedies that first earned him fame, playing to diminishing returns over the last decade in particular.

To be certain, Will Ferrell was a very busy and phenomenally successful comedy star in 2006, when Stranger Than Fiction quietly debuted in theaters. He was in the middle of an epic run of comedy collaborations with Adam McKay that had already included beloved movies like Anchorman and Talladega Nights earlier that year (not to mention Elf), with the likes of Step Brothers and The Other Guys still to come. You can’t fault him for embracing what was working at the time, and when Stranger Than Fiction came and went with relatively little fanfare, it probably didn’t seem like he was missing out on much. Years later, though, with Ferrell’s more recent oeuvre including such titles as Get Hard, Daddy’s Home (and a sequel somehow), and Holmes & Watson, the missed opportunity stands out considerably more starkly.


The gravity of that missed opportunity only feels significant because of how genuinely great Ferrell is in Stranger Than Fiction, a delightful film whose closest parallel might be something like Groundhog Day, thrusting a comedic legend into a bizarre (but dramatic) scenario where they’re largely playing the straight man, with no one around them understanding their unique burden. Whereas Bill Murray was stuck in an endless, banal day in rural Pennsylvania, invited by the universe to contemplate the seeming pointlessness of infinity, Ferrell is playing Harold Crick, a man who suddenly wakes up one morning to the voice of an omniscient narrator, describing his own dreary existence as a meek office drone at the IRS, albeit “with a better vocabulary.” That situation, sure to be diagnosed as schizophrenia by any reputable psychiatrist, would already be vexing enough without the voice adding that “little did he know that this simple, seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death.”

And there you have the animating force of Stranger Than Fiction: Harold Crick isn’t just being tormented by a weird voice in his head, but by the seeming certainty of his upcoming demise. Faced with that dread, he increasingly elects to live his life the way he always truly wanted it, even as he attempts to simultaneously research just who has assumed control over authoring his life story. The magic or element of fate at work here is never revealed or even seriously sought—the point isn’t understanding why author Karen Eiffel’s (Emma Thompson) writing seemingly has the power to rewrite reality itself, but examining how both she and her central protagonist will react to the discovery that each other exists. Just how often is a god made to stand face-to-face with a being it created, and explain itself?

This is a fantastical premise, and one that could easily be played as “zany” or insincere, something ripped from a glib episode of Rick & Morty. But it’s instead played sincerely and soulfully here, thanks to the work of Ferrell and Thompson, who are both forced to confront the disturbing nature of one person wielding such power over another. Ferrell is the anchor of the film, in a role that has by far the most dignity of any part he’s ever played. Harold Crick is fascinating—he’s the most average, mundane and simultaneously exemplary person Ferrell has ever portrayed. The actor reins in his reactions, holding back in all of the scenarios when his past work would have screamed to go big. Some of the funniest moments of Stranger Than Fiction involve the smallest of subtle reactions from Ferrell, like his growing befuddlement with Dustin Hoffman’s literary professor as he grills Harold about various literature tropes his story might involve. It’s adorable watching his eyes narrow in embarrassment at being asked to seriously consider the possibility that he should confirm whether or not he’s some kind of golem, deposed prince, or “the king of the trolls.” I can only imagine that it must have been a novel experience for him as an actor, toning down his performance and trusting others to often shoulder the comedic burden, instead making himself into a vessel for pathos.

Because rest assured, you could attempt to do a version of Stranger Than Fiction that contains a more conventional Will Ferrell performance, with bombastic comedic energy—Harold screaming expletives at a more antagonistic narrator, and being thrown in a nuthouse, forced to escape against a ticking clock. But the more flippant tone this would require wouldn’t work at all with the serious, profound piece of literature that Karen Eiffel is attempting to write. Her story about Harold Crick only functions as a tragedy because of Harold’s inherent humbleness, his decency, his status as a stand-in for other quietly productive and unremarkable members of society—Walter Mittys, one and all—who don’t quite manage to lead the lives they dream of. Her novel is the story of an unfulfilled man who begins to break free from his self-imposed trappings, only to be tragically cut down when he begins to make progress. If that guy was a loudmouthed man-child—a typical Ferrell comedy character like Ricky Bobby, Ron Burgundy or Brennan Huff—then our sympathy couldn’t possibly register the same. The film needs him to drop the bluster that defines so many of his classic roles in favor of vulnerability, and he rises to the challenge.


That sense of portentous tragedy and personal sacrifice swells in a genuinely powerful way in the final 15 minutes or so of the film, from the moment that Harold discusses the book’s contents with his mentor, then confronts those contents himself in a beautiful sequence that simply shows the man reading his own life’s annotation. Finally seeing his own existence from an outsider’s vantage point, Harold acknowledges that sacrifice for others is indeed a worthy purpose, solemnly walking into what he genuinely believes will be his death. He may ultimately be granted a last-second reprieve by the author, but he by no means knows it’s coming, which Thompson rightly concludes is the quality of a man you’d really prefer to keep alive. In the end, she waters down her own artistic achievement for the sake of humanity, Harold’s good nature having completely won her over.

And yet, Ferrell’s well-regarded turn here just didn’t seem to open any new doors for him in Hollywood. His only other genuinely dramatic turn would come four years later in 2010’s Everything Must Go, a rather tepid, low-budget indie dramedy about a middle-aged alcoholic man at a crossroads, selling off his life’s possessions at a yard sale after his career and marriage simultaneously collapse. The movie reviewed decently well but failed to make back even its modest budget in limited release, being effectively discarded from the cultural timeline as soon as it arrived. Certainly, this wasn’t the kind of high-profile dramatic turn that Ferrell deserved a shot at in the wake of Stranger Than Fiction. Meanwhile, in the 13 years since, Ferrell has appeared exclusively in film comedies, a run that has included his most poorly received work such as Holmes & Watson. And that’s a shame, knowing the tenderness he’s genuinely capable of portraying.

One has to wonder if perhaps Stranger Than Fiction would have opened more dramatic doors for Will Ferrell if it had just arrived a few years later, considering that in 2006 he was still in the midst of a run of top-tier comedies that rank among his most beloved work. Maybe if the same film had come along at the start of the 2010s, in the wake of movies like The Campaign or Get Hard, it would have been received as Ferrell turning over a welcome new leaf or beginning a fertile new era, and he would have subsequently filled the last decade with an eclectic slate of film projects rather than reiterations of his previous comedies. As is, Stranger Than Fiction stands out in his filmography today as a beautiful aberration, his equivalent to Jim Carrey’s The Truman Show, though at least Carrey subsequently had an opportunity to make the likes of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Man on the Moon. Ferrell is seemingly still waiting for an equivalent chance … or hell, perhaps he’s perfectly happy doing what he’s doing.

Through Harold Crick, though, Ferrell hinted at everything he’s capable of as a dramatic performer. Almost two decades later, there must be other film fans out there waiting for that side of him to make a welcome return.

Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident genre guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more film content.

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