Stranger Than Fiction
Will Ferrell stars as Harold Crick, a lonely IRS agent whose mundane existence is transformed when he hears a mysterious voice narrating his life. With the help of Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), Harold discovers he’s the main character in a novel-in-progress and that the voice belongs to Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), an eccentric author famous for killing her main characters in creative ways. Harold must quickly track down Eiffel and stop her before she conjures up a way to finish him off.
Much was written about Will Ferrell’s first “dramatic role” as Harold Crick, an IRS auditor who begins hearing a voice narrating his life. But Stranger Than Fiction is hardly a drama. However, what Ferrell does—like Jim Carrey before him in The Truman Show—is handle a toned-down character with genuineness and affection: you believe he is this guy. Crick leads a lonely life filled with numbers and routines. While at first he considers the voice a nuisance, Crick decides more action is needed when it speaks of “his demise.” Enter Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), who takes on the absurd notion with revelry, trying to find out what kind of book Crick’s life is leading. It turns out that the voice Crick is hearing belongs to Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a very real—and troubled—author who is writing a book in which Crick is a fictional character. As usual with these things, the stuffed shirt learns to live a better life—Crick even falls for one of his audits, a brash baker named Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Marc Foster (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland) has the right tone for the film, using great urban scenes (the unnamed city is Chicago) with interesting visualizations of Crick’s world of numbers. He also directs Ferrell, Hoffman, and Gyllenhaal to their most charming performances (plus Linda Hunt and Tom Hulce pop up in two funny scenes). Ferrell succeeds in being a romantic lead you can root for; a scene where he eats Ana’s freshly baked cookies is totally delightful without a hint of sarcasm. Screenwriter Zach Helm has two personal traits with his story: like Crick he followed his heart (he stopped rewriting scripts and only worked on his own) and like Eiffel, the final results are not a masterpiece, but good, and entertaining enough. Britt Daniel of the band Spoon worked on the dynamite soundtrack.—Doug Thomas
Barnes and Noble
A reality-bending comedy in the mold of Being John Malkovich, Marc Forster's Stranger than Fiction does something quite remarkable: It gives Will Ferrell the least annoying character he’s ever played on film. The Saturday Night Live alumnus here portrays Internal Revenue Service functionary Harold Crick, whose solitary and desperately dull existence is interrupted one day by the sound of a voice talking about his life as though it were part of a story. And indeed it is. Eccentric novelist Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is struggling to complete her latest book, and Harold has become her protagonist. When, in a bit of foreshadowing, she writes that he will soon be dead, Harold understandably freaks out. He undertakes a race against time to find the author before she can create the fatal scene, and in the process he becomes more attuned to life and its endless possibilities. Ferrell plays this role with deadpan earnestness, and under Forster's direction he turns in a carefully modulated performance. Thompson is marvelously dotty as the writer, and Dustin Hoffman and Maggie Gyllenhaal lend strong support as a professor of literature and Harold’s girlfriend, respectively. The script by Zach Helm, clearly influenced by the work of Charlie Kaufman, never really tries to address its inherent ridiculousness, but ultimately that doesn't matter. It’s a clever piece of work, exceptionally well interpreted by Forster. Ed Hulse