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November 8-14, 2006

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'Stranger Than Fiction'

Metafiction: Will Ferrell isn't sure if he's a character in a movie or a book, or both.

Typewriter Cast

Despite a clunker ending, the delightful 'Stranger Than Fiction' delivers like a well-oiled Olivetti

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

IN THE WONDERFUL new romantic comedy Stranger Than Fiction, Chicago IRS auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) has suddenly found himself the main character in a novel, which is perhaps an odd subject for a movie. But here the juxtaposition of picture and sound works perfectly, whereas in a novel, the double-jumble of words (as Harold performs an action and the narrator describes it) would prove too constricting.

Harold goes about his mundane life until he suddenly hears a narrator (the voice of Emma Thompson) describing his actions and thoughts. It's distracting to be sure, and mostly inconvenient, until the narrator says something about how Harold is going to die. Hoping to live a bit longer, Harold consults a literature expert, professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), who attempts to decipher whether Harold's story is a comedy or a tragedy, as well as who the author might be. Meanwhile, Harold falls in love for the first time, with his complete opposite: an anarchist baker, Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Harold meets her while auditing her; she explains that she has only paid 78 percent of her taxes because the other 22 percent goes to war, bombs and corporate cover-ups.

In Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, a character asks: If one could save from a burning building either the last known copy of Shakespeare's works or some "anonymous human being," which is the correct choice? Stranger Than Fiction asks a similar question, as it turns out that Thompson's writer, Kay Eiffel, is in fact creating her masterpiece. Is Harold's life worth more than that? But while Allen leaves his question hanging, Stranger Than Fiction ultimately works its way into a corner, and forces itself to come up with an answer. And no answer could possibly be as interesting as the question.

Until this unsatisfying ending, however, the movie flows just right. Ferrell manages a streamlined, uncharacteristically low-key performance, and he complements Gyllenhaal's loose ferocity. They have a wonderful chemistry of the type that graced hit films like When Harry Met Sally and Four Weddings and a Funeral. (Try not to smile when Harold brings a box of "flours" for his date.) First-time writer Zach Helm introduces a few bizarre, subversive elements, such as the punk/alternative music that Ana listens to. Professor Hilbert slurps down a constant flow of hot coffee, and Kay continually stifles her cigarettes in slightly damp tissues. Food plays an important role as well, from Ana's warm, soft cookies to the cold, creepy dinners eaten by the IRS men.

Director Marc Forster has floundered thus far with realism (Monster's Ball) and flights of fantasy both maudlin (Finding Neverland) and baffling (Stay), but he shows a nice touch here, even if he's sometimes clumsy or misguided (a trick shot of the inside of Ferrell's mouth while brushing his teeth). If the filmmakers had plunged a bit deeper, worked with a little more ambiguity or independence, they might have come up with something more along the lines of The Truman Show or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Stranger Than Fiction instead swaps genius for pleasure, but sometimes that's enough.

Movie Times Stranger Than Fiction (PG-13; 113 min.), directed by Marc Forster, written by Zach Helm, photographed by Roberto Schaefer and starring Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Emma Thompson, opens Nov. 10.

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