November 13, 2006

MOVIES: Stranger Than Fiction (Marc Forster, 2006)

I haven't been as dazzled as most by Marc Forster's earlier films. I thought Monster's Ball was overwrought melodrama, and Finding Neverland a syrupy bit of fluff. But this time, he gets it right; Stranger Than Fiction is a delight.

Will Ferrell stars as Harold Crick, an IRS auditor with little life to speak of outside of his job. His life is one mindless bit of routine after another -- nicely illustrated onscreen with a series of pop-up charts and graphs that follow him wherever he goes -- until the day he begins to hear a voice narrating his life. It's merely annoying at first, but when the voice announces that Harold's death is "imminent," annoyance becomes panic. We learn fairly quickly (though Harold does not) that the voice belongs to Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), and that Harold is the main character in her new novel, which she is struggling to finish.

Also on hand are Dustin Hoffman, droll and dry as the professor of literary theory to whom Harold turns for advice; Queen Latifah, sadly wasted in the movie's weakest role as the assistant sent by Karen's publisher to see that she finally finishes her book; and Maggie Gyllenhaal, absolutely adorable as the tax-protesting baker who becomes Harold's romantic interest.

For a while, it looks as it the movie's going to be yet another story about how the fear of death inspires a man to finally start living, but there are some twists in the final act that make the movie a much deeper and more profound contemplation on the relationship between life and art, and the extent to which we should be willing to sacrifice one for the other.

Ferrell is marvelous here, and this performance should dispel the notion that he's nothing but a zany comic; he makes Harold's transformation realistic and believable. And much credit, by the way, to Zach Helm's script for not overdoing Harold's change; it would have been easy to make a more radical shift from extreme timidity to extreme extroversion, but Helm and Ferrell give us a more subtle and realistic bit of progress. Thompson is also very good as the cranky, frustrated Eiffel, chain-smoking and stalling as she tries desperately to find an ending for her novel.

There were moments when I found myself wishing the movie had more directly addressed its central philosophical question -- How can Harold simultaneously be a real person in Karen's world and a character in her novel -- but the evasion of that question is done in a relatively graceful fashion, and the final choices made by Harold and Karen are such generous acts of sacrifice that you can't help but leave the movie with a warm, fuzzy glow. An absolute charmer.

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