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At the Movies: Clever structure, strong performances set ‘Stranger Than Fiction’ apart

AP Movie Critic

NEW YORK (AP): IRS agent Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) wakes up one morning and realizes that his monotonous, meticulous life is being narrated in “Stranger Than Fiction.''

The voice in his head is articulate, colorful, British (Emma Thompson as a morose novelist struggling to finish her latest book).

Will Ferrell

At first he thinks he's going crazy because no one else can hear it—but then when the woman alludes to his imminent death, he understandably grows a tad more concerned. What he doesn't even realize yet is that he's the main character in a book being written by an author who's famous for killing off her main characters, just as they achieve total happiness. And what she doesn't realize is that Harold Crick is a living, breathing human being.

In toying with the ideas of fiction vs. reality and the agony of creating art in such topsy-turvy, self-aware fashion, “Stranger Than Fiction'' probably sounds like something you've seen before: “The Truman Show,'' perhaps, or ``Adaptation.'' There's even a ``Family Guy'' episode in which Peter Griffin walks around narrating his own life. So, no, it's not completely original.

What sets this film apart, though, is the funny, subtle way in which director Marc Forster (in a departure from the intensity of ``Monster's Ball'' and the lush fantasy of ``Finding Neverland'') and first-time writer Zach Helm present a potentially preachy message—live each day to its fullest—as well as the universally outstanding performances from an eclectic cast.

Will Ferrell is a marvel in a completely unexpected, understated role as the bland Harold Crick (that name just says it all). You have never seen anything like this from him before. He's done straight, self-serious work in broad comedies like ``Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy'' and ``Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,'' but even then he was clearly aiming for laughs. His mastery of physical humor inevitably came shining through.

Ferrell has his light moments here, as well, especially as he flirts awkwardly with Ana Pascal (a vibrant Maggie Gyllenhaal), the anarchistic baker he's assigned to audit after she chooses to pay only 78 percent of her taxes. (Gyllenhaal, in her first truly adult role, also gives a breathtaking speech about the beauty of baked goods that rivals Virginia Madsen's famous wine soliloquy in “Sideways.'') But Ferrell digs deep, which is an exciting thing to discover.

Thompson is lovely as always, even when she's a wreck, as Kay Eiffel, a literary giant who hasn't produced anything in the past decade. Bleary-eyed, chain-smoking and anti-social, Thompson could have turned the character into a caricature of the misunderstood, self-loathing writer. But because she's brilliant at all times, she does something wholly unusual: She turns this miserable creature into someone so intelligent, so interesting, so real, you'd actually want to hang out with her.

And Dustin Hoffman is at his richly voiced, deadpan best as literature professor Jules Hilbert, who tries to help Harold determine whether he's the protagonist in a comedy or a tragedy. The list of questions he asks to narrow down what kind of story Harold's in is hilariously surreal, and it makes you long for more.

And, yes, the structure is clever. Very, very clever. It'll make your brain hurt if you think too hard about it—for example, if Kay is narrating Harold's story, if she has insight into his every thought and elaborate descriptions of his every deed, shouldn't she know that he's onto her and is trying to avoid being killed? And how does he have free will in the first place if she's dictating his actions?

You could drive yourself mad—madder than Harold thinks he's become—busying yourself with such thoughts. Instead, just go with it, as Harold does when he thinks he could die at any moment. Only then does he reluctantly give himself the freedom to enjoy life: to stop obsessing about brushing his teeth, to lose the suit and occasionally wear a sweater, to feel comfortable enough with Ana to play the guitar for her and sing her a song.

It all could have been sickly sweet. But when Harold asks Jules what he should do with his life, and Jules responds, “Just go make it the one you've always wanted,” the moment, like the film as a whole, strikes just the right tone.

“Stranger Than Fiction,” a Columbia Pictures release, runs 110 minutes. Three stars out of four.





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