Stranger Than Fiction (2006) (PG-13) ★★

Review Date: November 10th, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction has the pedigree to be quirkily great. For some people, that will be enough to trick themselves into loving it. But the non-fiction here is that the greatness begins and ends with the movie's marvelous title.


After starting what he thinks is just another day by methodically brushing his teeth the way he always does, IRS Agent Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) gets a visit from an uninvited auditory guest--Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), the author of his life. Little does she know while writing a book about a character named Harold Crick that the real Harold can hear her narrations loud and clear; little does Harold know that her novels don't have happy endings--that is, until he hears it in her narration, which states that he is to die. Luckily, she's in the midst of writer's block, so he has some time to find out, well, how much time he has to live. He immediately consults a literary professor (Dustin Hoffman) who instructs Harold to further pursue a relationship with an anarchistic baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) he is currently auditing in order to learn more about the course the novel will take. The relationship flourishes and he’s happy for the first time in a long time, but will art imitate--or end--his life?


Ferrell seems to be mimicking the exact path of his direct comedic-superstar predecessor Jim Carrey, even down to his first serious-ish role: Carrey’s first dramatic foray was the equally quasi-existential, though much better, Truman Show. Ferrell has no problem whatsoever making the transition--that’s just what abundant natural talent affords certain actors. But his crossover attempt should’ve been more subtle since audiences have come to expect at least one “streaking” scene per Ferrell film. As Ferrell’s heavily tattooed love interest, the ubiquitous Gyllenhaal scores again. Fresh off roles as a stripper single mom (Sherrybaby) and a frantic, pregnant 9/11 wife (World Trade Center), she proves that no matter her character’s physical appearance or mindset, she can do no wrong. Ditto for Thompson, who spends much of the film in pajamas and the throes of writer’s block--the ''writer'' prototype--much to the dismay of her publisher-appointed assistant, played well by Queen Latifah. Rounding out the cast is Hoffman, whose professor isn't totally unlike his answer provider in like-minded I Heart Huckabees. His character’s quirky humor is child’s play at this point for the veteran, but a select few scenes between him and Ferrell are extremely satisfying.


To liken Stranger Than Fiction to a Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, et al) script/movie is not totally without merit. Fiction captures the “vivid yet distant” essence that is common with Kaufman’s stories and subsequent movies. But whereas Kaufman doesn’t go out of his way to coddle audiences’ minds amidst his often obtuse movies, writer Zach Helm and director Marc Forster seem to have audience appreciation (read: box office) on the brain. Helm’s idea is nothing short of genius in a way that’s different from the oft-mentioned screenwriters he’s compared to, but somewhere en route he and/or Forster (Finding Neverland) compromised the vision. Because what starts out as a complex, intriguing movie turns stale quickly, especially given the inexplicable ease with which it transitions from a metaphysical story into a straightforward one. And Forster's tendency in the movie to undercomplicate is just as detrimental as the opposite extreme. The dialogue also falls somewhat flat, often neither funny nor off-kilter enough, buoyed only slightly by superb cinematography, set direction and indie music featuring Spoon (whose frontman, Britt Daniel, reworked some of their best songs for the movie)--but we’ve come to expect that trifecta from similar movies.

Bottom Line rated this film 2 stars.