Mundane IRS auditor Harold Crick (played by Will Ferrell) is 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 Hoffman). 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.
At the same time, author Karen Eiffel (played by Emma Thompson) wrestles with severe writer's block. She's been working on her latest novel for quite some time, but is at a complete loss at how to kill off her protagonist... one Mr. Harold Crick.
For the idiomatic definition of "stranger than fiction", see Reality Is Unrealistic.
This movie provides examples of:
- Acceptable Targets: Part of the test for whether Harold is in a comedy or a tragedy is if he has recently met anyone who hates him, and would want to kill him.Harold: I'm an IRS agent; everyone hates me.
Hilbert: That sounds like a comedy.
- 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.
- 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 at one point asks a nurse at a hospital "where are the dying people" because she wanted a visual to help imagine Harold's death. Harold as well; the visual effects mentioned under Design Student's Orgasm are noted in the commentary to be Harold's mental accounting for various items in the world. He also has difficulty socializing.
- An Aesop:
- Smoking is bad!
- Harold learns in both the book and the film is that it's important to relish life and do things with it.
- Anarchy Is Chaos: Ana Pascal seems to think so when says that anarchists assembling in groups would "defeat the purpose".
- Arc Words:
- "Harold's life was full of moments both significant and mundane." It also references the notion without the exact words a few times.
- "Little did he know..."
- Artistic License Law: Most professions that are prohibited from accepting gifts have a minimum dollar amount. A batch of cookies would likely not be considered material.
- Ass Pull: In-Universe. Karen is able to save Crick's life by instead making his wristwatch the primary character and the one who dies without meaning, thus sparing Crick without completely destroying her usual themes or writing. Hilbert notes that this makes the resulting finished product a lot weaker.
- Author Powers: Eiffel can kill people by writing their deaths in her stories.
- 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:
Dr. Hilbert: Come back Friday — wait, you said, "imminent." You could be dead by Friday. Come back tomorrow.
- 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.
- Book-Ends: The opening narration talks about Harold's wristwatch's opinions on Harold. The ending talks about how Harold's wristwatch decided to perform a Heroic Sacrifice to save his life.
- 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.
- Character Death: 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.
- Character Narrator: Karen Eiffel narrates Harold's life, but she's also a character herself in his life. Both of them are initially unaware of this fact, Eiffel even moreso because she, as the writer writing the very scene, doesn't realize it is her that Harold is calling on the phone.
- Until his apartment is wrecked, it is never established if he was being controlled by Eiffel's writing or if she was just narrating what he was doing at the time.
- 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 appearances 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 smashing it apart with both of her palms upon her desk.
- Cover Drop: The disc image is a green apple which helps inspire Eiffel's ending.
- Cruel Twist Ending: Eiffel's signature is a sudden death for the protagonists just as their lives were improving.
- Deadpan Snarker: Karen Eiffel.Penny: And I suppose you smoked all these cigarettes?
Karen: No. They came pre-smoked.
Penny: Yeah, they said you were funny.
- Penny is one too, in a quiet, subtle, lethal way, as shown by her reply:
Jules: Have you met any girl that might have might shaken your world view?Harold: I audited a baker who told me to get bent.Jules: Sounds like a comedy to me.
- Jules too.
- Design Student's Orgasm: 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. He is, however, particular as to what it is he measures out, and seems to be upset when someone implies he counted something he didn't.
- Deus ex Machina: In-universe. The author decides that she can't kill off Harold Crick, seeing as how he was willing to sacrifice himself to save a child, on top of not wanting to kill someone who exists in real life. Hilbert points out it ruins the story and its theme with the deus ex machina and is very out of place with the rest of the novel (as currently written), but Karen decides that is an acceptable tradeoff for letting Harold live.
- Dice Roll Death: That Harold's death is foretold in the narration as being caused by a "seemingly innocuous act" implies this, compounding the frustration that he doesn't know what to do to avoid it.
- Dramatic Irony: "Little did he know..." In fact, little did she know, he knew.
- Endearingly Dorky: It's implied that Ana finally starts falling for Harold because he's goofy and endearing, and it's pretty easy to see why.
- The Everyman: Harold is depicted as the average man, to the most boring degree possible.
- Everyone Has Standards: While Ana has nothing but contempt for the institution that Harold represents, she comes to recognize that Harold himself is not a bad person and doesn't deserve the hell that she put him through. Her attempt to make this up to him kickstarts what would eventually become their relationship.
- Face Death with Dignity: Once he finally sees what's in store for him, Harold gives Karen permission to finish her book as it's originally written.
- Failed a Spot Check: The construction crew who demolishes Harold's apartment under the assumption it was a condemned building.
- 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:
"Harold, distraught... Harold, distraught..."
- Harold finds out he is going to die in a pretty unconventional and profound way, after all. That poor, poor lamp...
- Eiffel goes through one when she realizes Harold was real, and starts wondering if she really killed people with her previous books. She later breaks down in a furious fit when she starts to finish his death scene.
- Fridge Horror: Invoked. It's so PoMo that this even happens In-Universe: Karen Eiffel was a well known author whose Signature Style was the tragic and meaningless death of each of her protagonists. Harold Crick was the only one who figured it out (or the only one who had the means to contact her), and she prevented his death from happening. So how many people did Karen kill inadvertently before she realized she might be controlling real people? When Karen realizes this possibility, it hits her like a freight train. It should be noted that this is not an uncommon worry for writers, of contemporary fiction or otherwise, to have lurking somewhere in the back of their mind. If you've ever wondered why so many authors seem to have a love affair with impossible or incongruous names, part of the reason is to dodge this particular bullet since the probability of an actual person having that name, and thus being affected, is ridiculously low.
- Genre Savvy:
Jules: Come back next week. Wait, you could be dead by then. Come back tomorrow.
- Played with. Professor Hilbert is Genre Savvy because he studies literature, but they can't take advantage of it because they don't know what kind of story Harold Crick is in.
- Once Hilbert actually believes Harold is being narrated (due to the "little did he know" line below), he instantly starts displaying his Genre Savvy.
- A Good Way to Die: After reading through the draft of Eiffel's novel about him, Professor Hilbert tells Harold that his death is required to truly make the novel a literary masterpiece. Harold 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.
- Granola Girl: Ana Pascal, our resident baker, is of the "hate The Man" type.
- The Hero Dies: The fate Harold is trying to avoid. In-universe, Karen is famous for doing this in every book she writes.
- Heroic BSoD: Karen has one when she assumes that because Harold is real that her other characters were as well, leading her to believe that she killed multiple people. Harold also has several: one when he learns he's to die, and another when waiting for Hilbert to determine his fate in the manuscript. The bus driver who seemingly kills Harold in the accident has a breakdown in the aftermath, and in the epilogue, is seen still staring off into space, comforted by her co-workers.
- Heroic Sacrifice:
Karen: If a man faces his death willingly... Isn't that the type of man you want to stay alive?
- When Harold Crick reads the ending Karen Eiffel finally decided on: that he is killed by a bus after pushing a child out of the way: he decides that preserving the plot of the novel and continuing to knowingly be a part of this literary masterpiece is a sacrifice worth making, and goes through with it with full knowledge of the consequences.
- 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.
- Ice-Cream Koan: From the HR guy in Harold's office: "A tree doesn't... think it's a tree. It is a tree!" This is also part of Karen's ongoing narration: "Of course trees were trees. Harold knew trees were trees." Harold (thanks to the narrator) decides he hates the HR guy for this.
- Imagine Spot: Of the writer jumping from the tall building. We then cut back to her standing on a table.
- Informed Ability: Karen's writing ability. We only see (and hear) snippets of it—both Harold and Hilbert think the full manuscript is a brilliant masterpiece, but we only see quick snatches as they read through it, and only hear her narrate when it applies to Harold in her story. (It's rather brilliantly subverted by the ending, though, since we are never shown the full "masterpiece"; Hilbert says that Karen's revised ending leaves the whole story as merely good rather than genius.)
- I Know You Know I Know: Inverted hilariously when Harold mentions to Professor Hilbert that the narrator said "Little did he know":Hilbert: I've written papers on "Little did he know." I've taught classes on "Little did he know." I once gave an entire seminar based upon "Little did he know." Sonofabitch, Harold. "Little did he know" means there's something he did not know. That means there's something you don't know. Did you know that?
- Jerkass Has a Point: As incredibly brusque and seemingly uncaring Hilbert is about the inevitable death of Harold, people DO have their lives changed for the better from literary works—and he knew about Harold saving the child in the end, too.
- Lemony Narrator: In-universe example with Karen Eiffel's narration, which can get quite sarcastic about Harold's life. 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 toHilbert: 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.
- Only Sane Employee: Karen Eiffel's publisher hires a "personal assistant" to make sure she finishes her new novel.
- Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Ms. Pascal, and their developing relationship, is one of the things that gives Harold something to live for.
- Also, being Genre Savvy, Hilbert asks if he has recently met anyone whose shaken up his life.
- Morning Routine: How the movie starts is with Harold's routine, and Eiffel narrating it.
- Mouth Cam: When Harold Crick brushes his teeth in the beginning.
- My God, What Have I Done?: A shocking realization happens to Karen Eiffel twice. The first time, it's when she's learned that Harold is real, that what she's written actually happens to him, and that she may have killed real people with her previous novels. The second, combined with a Heroic BSoD, is after she's just typed out the sentence that kills Harold.
- 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 Inner Fourth Wall: There is no fourth wall between the author and her protagonist, but the fourth wall between them and the audience 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.
- Painting the Medium:
- For the audience. The narrator in any other movie would be the usual disembodied narrator, but here the main character reacts to a voice, as you probably would do when someone describes your life in detail and 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.
- Postmodernism: The narrator doesn't know they are the narrator. Or if in her story as written Harold knows there is a narrator.
- Rage Against the Author. "No, I'm raging against YOU, you stupid voice! So just shut up and leave me alone!"
- Railroading: When Harold Crick tries staying at home all day, doing nothing, in order to prevent the plot from moving forward, a wrecking crew tears a hole in his apartment wall.
- Reality-Writing Book: Presumably, any book Eiffel writes a story in could affect reality. It's definitely happening to Harold, and Eiffel is shaken that it could have happened to her previous characters.
- It does have to be typed out, as she had a draft of the ending done on legal pads that didn't effect reality.
- Reed Richards Is Useless: Considering everything that Eiffel writes in her story ends up happening, she very well could put things in the book that would help the world. It's justified because she has no idea she can do this. Though she never seems to get such an idea after finding out.
- Riddle for the Ages: Did Karen alter reality somehow and make Harold a real person? Or are Harold's life and Karen's book an astronomically improbable (but possible) coincidence? We never learn either way.
- Roofless Renovation: Completely accidental, as it turns out, but still railroads our reluctant protagonist.
- Slipstream Genre: 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 with the protagonist dying just short of accomplishing something, and the rough draft of Harold Crick's story is no different. It later becomes part of the reason as to why Karen rewrites the ending—she tells Hilbert the dramatic irony and poignancy of Harold's death would have been nullified by someone who willingly went to die for a noble cause.
- Sweet Baker: Double Subverted. When Harold is sent to audit Ana's bakery, she is rude and deliberately standoffish to him because he's an IRS agent and she's a hippie who donates baked goods to the homeless and refuses to pay the exact percentage of her taxes that would have gone to fund "national defense, corporate loan-outs, and campaign discretionary funds'' (27%, to be exact). But Ana eventually regrets her treatment of Harold and begins to warm up to him, even giving him cookies as a form of apology for how she treated him earlier. Harold sees the kind and caring side of Ana, and the two fall in love.
- 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.
- Theme Naming: Every person in the movie is named for a mathematician, scientist, or engineer (Harold Crick, Ana Pascal, Karen Eiffel, Penny Escher, Jules Hilbert, and so on). Likewise the streets (Kronecker, Euclid). And Eiffel's publisher. Just about everything named, actually.
- 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.
- Trademark Favorite Food: Hilbert's copious coffee consumption.
- Trailers Always Lie: The movie was portrayed as typical Will Ferrell comedy in advertisements, which it is decidedly not. Also counts as Playing Against Type: Will Ferrell is usually wacky and over-the-top in his roles, but the wackiest moment in the movie is his Rage Against the Author moment, which is actually justified and pretty low-key.
- True Art Is Angsty: Invoked by Karen, who believes this and that's why she writes all her novels to end with the protagonist's tragic death just before they accomplish something great. Also gives us the final punchline of the movie. Karen changes the story at the last moment so Harold survives getting run over and gets a pretty happy ending out of it. Upon reading it, Professor Hilbert deems the ending of the book just okay.
- Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Dave, Harold's friend at the IRS, hands Harold the folder that leads to an incredibly frustrating audit and his imminent (though avoidable) death. Dave obviously was trying to help a distressed Harold and clearly thought he was handing over the easier job; it just turned out to be anything but.
- 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.
- 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 the fact that Harold is better at math than Karen casts some early doubt on the whole "fictional character vs. real author" relationship.
- You Can't Fight Fate: There's nothing Harold can do to stop his death because he's just a character in someone's story. The person writing this story, on the other hand, can defy fate all they want, because they are fate.