Stranger Than Fiction

Stranger Than Fiction
TORONTO -- Hearing the premise, you'd guess Stranger Than Fiction is Marc Forster's entry into the Charlie Kaufman meta-movie arena: One day, Harold Crick discovers that he is the creation of a novelist; rebelling against the idea of a predetermined destiny, he sets out to find his creator and beg her to set him free instead of killing him off.

Surely, you imagine, it won't be long before Crick and his neighbors start to suspect an even larger fiction, addressing the filmmakers directly and turning the whole thing into a comic Mobius filmstrip.

In practice, Fiction isn't nearly that unusual. Less like Adaptation than a smarter version of Click, the picture pleases while remaining unchallenging to a broad audience. Boxoffice prospects are particularly good given star Will Ferrell's recent success, though his performance here is hardly a Ricky Bobby-like yukfest.

His performance isn't shtick at all, in fact. Like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, this is a film that seems tailored to a comedian's weirder side but instead offers sweetness and sincerity. Ferrell is deliberately, almost distractingly normal as a by-the-numbers IRS auditor who sees his orderly world come apart. (Kay Eiffel, the author who invented him, is supposed to be a heavy hitter, but she lifted Crick straight out of central casting -- the only innovation being his R2D2-like wristwatch, which with beeps and blinks tries in vain to wake Crick from his robotic existence.)

Ferrell's straightman act isn't ironic, either. Treating it that way would have earned some easy laughs early on, but it would have sabotaged the film's aim to move quickly away from its broadest material into light romance. Fiction doesn't entirely succeed in that department -- love interest Maggie Gyllenhaal, as a baker being audited by Crick, is especially sexy here, but the two don't make much sense as a couple -- though it comes close.

When he isn't fumbling toward love with Gyllenhaal, Crick tries to make sense of his predicament, winding up with Dustin Hoffman's literature professor Jules Hilbert, who (shades of his character in "I ? Huckabee's") comically examines Crick's real-world problems through the lens of theory. (In the brightest moment here, Hilbert has Crick gathering evidence to see if the novel he's starring in is a comedy or a tragedy.)

Meanwhile, the only reason Crick isn't dead is that his creator has writer's block. As Eiffel, Emma Thompson is an exaggerated knot of angst, chain-smoking while her assistant Penny (an under-utilized Queen Latifah) tries to jumpstart her imagination.

If the movie doesn't make the most of its self-aware conceit, it fills in the gaps with small, lovely touches that would work in any normal romance: Shy banter on an extended bus, with Ferrell sitting in the hinge section while Gyllenhaal, a row away, is moved to and fro when the bus turns corners; the tightly wound accountant being introduced to the joy of milk and cookies; the warm glow of multicolored light fixtures that break the ice on the couple's first date. Fiction may disappoint viewers at the extremes -- those hoping for wild experimentation or for another wacky Ferrell comedy -- but it's awfully satisfying on its own terms.

STRANGER THAN FICTION

Columbia Pictures

Mandate Pictures

Credits:

Director: Marc Forster

Screenwriter: Zach Helm

Producer: Lindsay Doran

Executive producers: Joe Drake, Nathan Kahane, Eric Kopeloff

Director of photography: Roberto Schaefer

Production designer: Kevin Thompson

Costume designer: Frank Fleming

Music: Britt Daniel, Brian Reitzell

Editor: Matt Chesse

Cast:

Harold Crick: Will Ferrell

Ana Pascal: Maggie Gyllenhaal

Dr. Jules Hilbert: Dustin Hoffman

Penny Escher: Queen Latifah

Kay Eiffel: Emma Thompson

MPAA rating PG-13

Running time -- 112 minutes

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