This is a story about a man named Harold Crick and his wristwatch. Harold Crick was a man of infinite numbers, endless calculations, and remarkably few words. And his wristwatch said even less.
Mundane IRS auditor Harold Crick (played by Will Ferrell) was minding his own business, living his daily routine, when one day, he begins to hear a voice... the voice of an author. Her voice follows him everywhere, narrating his daily activities, much to his annoyance. After all, there's not much to narrate. Beyond going to work, brushing his teeth, and eating meals alone, nothing at all happens worth narrating. Until he hears one line that changes everything. "Little did he know that this simple, seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death."That one narration is enough to thrust Harold into action, eager to do anything it takes to avoid his death. Though told he's schizophrenic by the psychologist he sees, Harold refuses to believe such a diagnosis. Instead, he seeks out the foremost professor in literature, Dr. Jules Hilbert (played by Dustin Hoffmann). Hilbert quizzes him extensively on the narrator, then sets Harold to figuring out whether he's in a comedy or tragedy. After all, in a comedy he'll get hitched, but in a tragedy he'll die.The film also gives us the perspective of Karen Eiffel (played by Emma Thompson), an author currently suffering from severe writer's block. Apparently she's been working on this novel for quite some time, but is at a complete loss at how to kill off her protagonist... one Mr. Harold Crick.The film is notable for its all-star cast and for placing Will Ferrell in an uncharacteristically dramatic role... and with good results!For the idiomatic definition of "stranger than fiction", see Reality Is Unrealistic.
This movie provides examples of:
Addiction Displacement: At the end, Karen Eiffel's assistant Penny gets her the patch to replace her cigarettes, but it's left unclear whether Karen will give up her addiction or not. Although Karen has begun to show signs of an aversion to smoking after she realizes the repercussions of finishing her story.
Adorkable: It's implied that Ana finally starts falling for Harold due to this trope, and it's pretty easy to see why.
Ambiguous Disorder: Karen Eiffel is very unusual in the way she acts around others, sometimes coming off as aggressive and distant. She also takes time imagining deaths, usually imagining herself being the one who dies, and once asked a nurse at a hospital "where are the dying people" because she wanted a visual to help imagine Harold's death.
Author's Saving Throw: Amazingly enough, an in-universe example. Karen Eiffel decides that she doesn't want Harold Crick to die after all, so she writes another ending that she admits is a Deus ex Machina. Her novel was initially about someone who dies unexpectedly, but when she meets Harold Crick, he gave his life willingly, knowing what she had planned for him and that it was for the greater good. She decides to revise the story she's already written so that the "character" that dies is Harold's wristwatch, which has been treated as a protagonist in its own way since the opening moments of the film.
Bookworm: Dr. Jules Hilbert, justified since he's a professor in literature and one of the notable names in his field.
Black Comedy: Slightly. Professor Hilbert's casual mention of Harold's death and Harold's own mounting hysteria over the subject is, frankly, a bit funny to watch.
Related to below, Karen's Break the Haughty scene and her imagining potential deaths for Harold are also funny. Especially in contrast to her assistant Penny's seriousness.
Break the Haughty: This happens to Karen Eiffel, successful and assured in her own abilities until she realizes everything she's been writing is true, and she may have killed actual people with her last books.
Butterfly of Doom: Variant: If not for a trivial event at the beginning of the movie, the events leading up to Harold Crick's untimely death would not have happened.
Chekhov's Gun: The watch. Repeatedly pointed out as such — in fact, treated by the narrator like an entirely separate character.
Chekhov's Gunman: You know that kid with the bike and the job-hunting woman that show up unexplained in the beginning of the movie? Unsurprisingly, they're important. In fact, their multiple appearance suggest that Eiffel is trying to figure out how to make them fit this trope. They may even be the other protagonists, central to the book but not to the movie. In fact, the interview where Harold identifies his narrator has her describing her upcoming book as being about, among other things, "interconnectivity".
Cigarette of Anxiety: Karen Eiffel has a particularly affecting scene after she might have killed Harold Crick where she tries to anxiously light a cigarette before just grabbing it and tearing it apart.
Cover Drop: The disc image is a green apple which helps inspire Eiffel's ending.
Penny: And I suppose you smoked all these cigarettes? Karen: No. They came pre-smoked.
Penny too, in a quiet, subtle, lethal way:
Penny: Yeah, they said you were funny.
Design Student's Orgasm: Well, more of an auditor's orgasm. Harold's number-obsessed view of the world shows up as hovering numbers and graphs that expand out of the objects he's analyzing.
Not nearly as much as the end credit sequence, especially after watching the special features about the the design company (who went on to design the opening credits sequence for Quantum of Solace).
Deus ex Machina: A rare justified example. The author decides that she can't kill off Harold Clark, seeing as how he was willing to sacrifice himself to save a child. She acknowledges that this means the story doesn't make sense, but she doesn't care.
Fanboy: Jules is one for Karen, sending her lengthy letters about the beauty of her tragedies. She never replies, though, making him worry that they just got thrown away. (Turns out, Karen loves them and relishes his rich prose, with her reactions to them bordering on Ship Tease.)
Fourth Wall Observer: A variation: Harold can hear the narrator, but turns out the Fourth Wall isn't technically up in the first place. Which makes the fourth wall sort of a one-way mirror.
Freak Out!: Eiffel goes through one when she realizes Harold was real, and starts wondering if she really killed people with her previous books.
But not before Harold has his own. The guy does find out he is going to die in a pretty unconventional and profound way, after all. That poor, poor lamp...
Once Hilbert actually believes Harold is being narrated (due to the "little did he know" line below), he instantly starts displaying his Genre Savvy.
Jules: Come back next week. Wait, you could be dead by then. Come back tomorrow.
A Good Way to Die: After reading through the draft of Eiffel's novel about him, Professor Hilbert tells Howard that his death is required to truly make the novel a literary masterpiece. Howard then brings himself to read the draft, and realizes he has to die to save a boy. He then accepts his impending death as this trope.
In addition, both the novel and the film itself treat Harold's watch as its own character. When the bus slams into Harold, the first thing it hits is his watch — which is destroyed, but a part of it becomes embedded permanently in his arm and slows down the hemorrhage that would have killed him otherwise. So just like Harold stepped in front of a bus to save a child, his watch took the brunt of the hit for him.
Karen: If a man faces his death willingly... Isn't that the type of man you want to stay alive?
Informed Ability: Karen's writing ability. The movie is interesting, but the novel is not that interesting. Certainly not enough to warrant putting a child in danger so a guy can die in order for the ending to be interesting. Then again, considering we only get the main character's perspective in a story that obviously more factors going into it than just him, odds are the story is much more interesting as a regular linear narrative.
Professor Hilbert even comments on it, saying that the (revised) finished book is only "okay." To him, the manuscript with the original ending is a masterpiece.
I Know You Know I Know: Inverted hilariously when Harold mentions to Professor Hilbert that the narrator said "Little did he know":
Killed Off for Real: As it turns out, Karen was about to do this to Harold by writing her novel. Once she realizes this, she wonders if this was the same fate that befell all her other protagonists.
Lemony Narrator: In-universe example with Karen Eiffel's narration. Notable that she's not a man (though she is British), unlike most examples of this trope.
Like You Were Dying: The premise of the movie. Harold thinks he's going to die soon. Professor Hilbert's advice is to do whatever it is he's always wanted to and never had the chance to
Hilbert: Hell Harold, you could just eat nothing but pancakes if you wanted. Harold: What is wrong with you? Hey, I don't want to eat nothing but pancakes, I want to live! I mean, who in their right mind in a choice between pancakes and living chooses pancakes? Hilbert: Harold, if you pause to think, you'd realize that that answer is inextricably contingent upon the type of life being led... and, of course, the quality of the pancakes.
No Antagonist: Harold is simply dealing with the narration of his life and the fact that he's going to die soon. Karen is just working through writer's block, and has no idea that she's affecting Harold's life. Even when they meet, their relationship isn't antagonistic; Karen has massive doubts over killing Harold, but can't think of another way to end the story.
No Fourth Wall: Only between the author and her protagonist, though. The fourth wall of the movie is very much intact.
Not That Kind of Doctor: The voices Harold is hearing are about him, not to him, placing it out of the field of Psychology and into the field of Literature, as noted by a psychologist in the film.
Oh, and X Dies: Early in the novel (and film), it's made clear that Harold is going to die at the end, and this is what kicks off his quest. He doesn't, however.
Painting the Medium: For us. The narrator in any other movie would be the normal narrator, but here the main character reacts to a voice, as you probably would do when someone describes your life in detail. Especially from a "third-person omniscient" perspective.
One of the tasks Hilbert gives Harold is to figure out if his story is a comedy or tragedy. It's hard to tell this about the film itself, there's certainly humor but also a lot of dark drama, and right up until the end you can't fully be sure if Harold will live or not.
Slipstream: Genre-wise, it's more this than Magical Realism, both in terms of the movie itself and possibly in Karen's book, what with the watch being portrayed as vaguely sentient.
Shoot the Shaggy Dog: According to Professor Hilbert, all of Karen Eiffel's previous novels have ended this way, and the rough draft of Harold Crick's story is no different.
Shout-Out: Every person in the movie is named for a mathematician, scientist, or engineer. Likewise the streets. And Eiffel's publisher. Just about everything named, actually.
Take That: In-universe. The reason Harold is able to find Karen Eiffel is because she had been audited ten years prior, which is also around the time she started writing a book about an IRS agent who would inevitably die.
Take Our Word for It: The brilliance of Eiffel's original ending. It's hard to tell from watching the film where the poetry was in Harold dying from a confluence of three different storylines — his own, the boy on the bike's, and that of the bus driver.
There Are No Therapists: Played with; a therapist is one of the first people Harold visits, and though his problem is outside her field (she just thinks it's schizophrenia), she does help point him to Dr. Hilbert.
Trailers Always Lie: The movie was portrayed as typical Will Ferrell comedy in advertisements, which it is decidedly not.
What Is One Man's Life In Comparison?: The idea is batted about that maybe the possible contribution to world literature and the greater meaning of his planned death mean that Harold should accept his death as it was written. Hilbert's speech about the original ending comes off as pretty damn cold concerning his implied utter disregard for Harold's life.
The Windy City: Although the story quite clearly takes place in Chicago (a man is seen reading the Tribune on the bus, the Dearborn Street subway station sign is seen, as is "Illinois Lottery" at the bodega where Karen buys the apple) there is strangely no specific mention of such, even though the buses that go throughout the movie are obviously CTA buses with the logos hidden.
Writers Cannot Do Math: In-universe example. While Harold is being distracted by Karen, someone asks him what the product of 67 and 453 is. He answers with 30351, which Karen says is wrong, and that the real answer is 31305, which he quickly corrects to. Because he is obviously distracted, it seems very probable that he would have gotten it wrong. He hadn't, and had the correct answer the first time. Of course, she may have just been messing with him, but why?
In the context of the book Karen is writing about Harold, it's a straight example of Writers Cannot Do Math. In the larger frame of the movie, though, the fact that Harold is better at math than Karen casts some early doubt on the whole "fictional character vs. real author" relationship. Consider as well that he gave his answer before Karen's narration.