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Stranger Than Fiction   B-

Columbia Pictures / Mandate Pictures

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Marc Forster
Writer: Zach Helm
Cast: Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, Emma Thompson, Tony Hale, Tom Hulce, Linda Hunt.

Review by Rob Vaux

The charm and whimsy on display in Stranger Than Fiction should not be lightly dismissed, for they succeed where many of its loftier elements fail. Posited as an existential comedy -- pitting an author against her ostensibly fictitious character -- it meanders through its core concept without bothering to work out most of the metaphysics. And yet, on a more basic level, its absurdity and gentle smiles slowly grow into a modestly winning package. As a philosophical study, it's shaky beyond belief, but as a humorous trifle, it admirably makes up the difference.

Credit for that goes largely to the womenfolk, who swirl chaotically around the film's protagonist like paper in the wind. As neurotic author Kay Eiffel, Emma Thompson displays her usual effortless grace, making a comedic feast out of her character's gloomy navel gazing. As unattainable love interest Ana Pascal, Maggie Gyllenhaal again turns her adorable facade inside out, juxtaposing a dimpled cherub's face with generous helpings of tattooed hostility. And as hyper-competent writer's assistant Penny Escher, Queen Latifah does marvels with an utterly thankless role, providing a strong, implacable wall against which Thompson can bounce. Under director Marc Foster, the three bring an acerbic vibrancy to the proceedings, and keep the energy levels appreciably high.

They also allow star Will Ferrell to adopt the stoicism that his part requires. He plays Harold Crick, the ostensible hero of Eiffel's latest novel, who is so terminally dull he actually counts the number of brushes it takes to clean each tooth. Such passive banality makes Crick a tremendous asset to the IRS (for whom he works as an agent), but he has no friends or family, and the remainder of his life is as sterile as a hospital washbasin. That is, until he begins hearing Eiffel's voice in his head, narrating his life as it happens and speaking ominously about an impending doom. The part provides Ferrell with a rare chance to ratchet down his usual manic energy, adopting a mask of Stan Laurel haplessness as Eiffel's narration upsets his carefully ordered universe. Without a proper counterweight, it might have sucked the energy out of the rest of the film, but with Thompson, Latifah, and Gyllenhaal providing the requisite spark, he can mine his exasperated straight-man routine for all it's worth.

Naturally the fear of death prompts Crick to embrace life for the first time, while seeking advice from a local English professor (a droll Dustin Hoffman) as to what the voice in his head might imply. Here, Stranger Than Fiction flails about too often for comfort. The script clearly strives for Beckett-esque absurdity, defining Crick's life as an apparent work of fiction that he is helpless to alter or avoid. And yet, as the previews reveal, Crick may not actually be fiction, but rather a flesh-and-blood person inhabiting the same world as Eiffel. So what, then, is the nature of their connection? How is Eiffel's muse channeling the life of a real man into her imagination, and what does that say about the stories that she composes? Those are key questions, but the film avoids them completely, as well as ducking the fertile possibilities of an artist meeting her creation... and the question of whether death is an acceptable price to pay for great literature. Foster milks a few laughs from the setup, but never really engages it beyond casual flirtation. For a film that clearly aspires to so much, such avoidance is inexcusable.

But even as Stranger Than Fiction fritters away its potential on that front, it compensates by keeping a lively eye on simpler elements. The comic possibilities of Crick's dilemma develop into some decent humor, and the fragile opposites-attract romance between he and Pascal can be quite sweet. (There's a lovely visual at one point involving the pair on either side of a divided bus, their seats swinging in and out of each other's sight lines as they talk.) Hoffman's academic pomposity provides an adequate satirical wellspring as well, while Eiffel's morbid fixations find the right sense of puckish mischief in Thompson's hands. While the film's philosophical musings prove frustratingly unformed, its human story becomes much easier to embrace. It lets us care about Harold, to root for his happiness, and to worry about his possible death; no mean feat considering the liabilities presented by the film's "deeper" side. It spends much time debating the nature of Crick's existence, but in the end, its muddled conclusions don't matter. It's an interesting story about a decent guy who can't figure out why strange things are happening to him. Taken at face value, Stranger Than Fiction needs nothing more to succeed... no matter how often its poorly defined ruminations may distract it.

Review published 11.09.2006.

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