Who among us has not leaned into the bathroom mirror as we brushed our teeth, thinking about what a narrator might be saying about us if we were in a story? “Our hero prepared for battle as though he was going on a date. He always said he found unbrushed teeth a distraction in a kung fu tournament.” Who among us hasn’t wondered if we were really the heros of our own life story? Well, Harold Crick hadn’t. Not until this movie gets underway.
Crick (Will Ferrell) is so mild-mannered he makes Clark Kent look like Kanye West. He likes everything to be neat, predictable, according to the rules, and orderly. He brushes each tooth precisely, the same number of up and down strokes every day. He works, of course, for the IRS. And he would be of no interest to himself or us or anyone at all except that a very distinguished and literary writer named Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is writing a story about him. Not that she’s ever met him. She thinks he’s a fictional character, a figment of her imagination. And yet, perhaps the fact that she is experiencing the direst of writer’s block should give her some hint that he may be real and with a mind of his own. Especially when it comes to staying alive. Eiffel wants to kill him off. She spends her days thinking about ways to do it. But Crick becomes aware of her plans. For the first time, he realizes that he is alive, and that he wants to stay that way.
It isn’t just that he begins to hear his life being narrated (“and with a better vocabulary!”) that leads him to think about what life has to offer. There is also his latest assignment at work, an audit of a feisty but lovely and warm-hearted law school dropout-turned-baker, Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Just as Eiffel struggles with what she should do (kill off Crick), Crick struggles with what he should do (collect back taxes from Pascal). Eiffel gets some help from an aide sent by her publisher (Queen Latifah). Crick consults a therapist (Linda Hunt) and then, since his problem seems more literary than psychological, a professor of literature (Dustin Hoffman), who quizzes him to determine exactly which story he’s in, asking, for example, whether Crick has received any unusual presents lately, like, maybe, a big wooden horse?
Crick and Eiffel face the choice put to Achilles — would you rather have a short, violent, heroic life and be remembered through the ages, or a long, quiet, happy life, and be forgotten two generations after you die? Crick (perhaps named for Francis Crick, Nobel laureate for discovering the double helix of DNA), must decide whether he is a man capable of independent thought, whether he is willing to fight against what fate (well, Eiffel) has is store for him. Eiffel (perhaps named for Gustave Eiffel, engineer of the tower that bears his name as well as the Statue of Liberty) must decide whether art, even art that can inspire and illuminate the world for thousands of readers, is more important than the life of one man who is just discovering the difference between cookies from a box and cookies from the oven.
Those cookies are pulled from the oven by Pascal (perhaps named for the French mathematician/philosopher), who has already made her choice, leaving law school to become a baker, a political choice as well as an aesthetic, spiritual, and personal one. She represents more than the usual romantic comedy ideal of a quirky but warm-hearted life-force. She is a fully actualized person, so much so that it doesn’t take a great deal for her to overcome her initial dislike of Crick and see him for who he really is, even before he sees that himself.
The cast is superb, especially Hoffman as the professor, and the direction and pacing are superb, but the star, fittingly, for this meditation on the power of stories, is the script — exceptionally clever, knowledgeable about literature and narrative structure, filled with sly humor but also as warmly delectable as one of Pascal’s cookies.
Parents should know that the film has some mature material including brief strong language, sexual references and non-explicit situations, partial nudity, and comic violence and peril (no one badly hurt).
Families who see this film should talk about what it means to be the hero of your own life. If you could enter into any story, what would it be? If you could change the ending of a story, what would you pick?