Stranger Than Fiction
Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is a numbers guy. He's obsessive about counting: the number of brush strokes he applies to cleaning his teeth; the number of steps it takes from his front door to the bus-stop; the time it takes to get to work. Everything adds up.
Harold works for - who else? - The Internal Revenue Service. But that nagging voice he hears in the back of his head, that isn't his conscience speaking. The voice is female. And English. And more articulate than Harold can easily explain. Disturbingly, it seems to know everything about him and more - almost as if it was his own personal narrator. At first it's an irritation. Then the voice announces his imminent demise and Harold is left to figure out if a rewrite is on the cards.
On the surface, Stranger Than Fiction is a smart post-modern comedy in the vein of Groundhog Day, The Truman Show or Adaptation. Underneath the slick, it's a sentimental midlife crisis movie arguing that playing the guitar, eating milk and cookies and making love to Maggie Gyllenhaal is more life-affirming than auditing tax returns. (No arguments there.)
A performer better known for tearing his clothes off at the drop of a hat, Ferrell earns his dramatic stripes by underplaying nicely. It's a subdued, modulated performance that draws out another delightfully wiggy performance from Dustin Hoffman as the literary professor who takes a sympathetic interest in his predicament, advising Harold to romance his latest audit (bohemian baker Maggie) in the hope that his story might turn out to be a comedy. Unfortunately the narrator - aka blocked novelist Emma Thompson - is intent on tragedy, if only she can figure out just how to bump off her main character.
This is a likeable, quirky movie, but it's altogether too cute to be the modern classic everyone would dearly like it to be. Zach Helm's screenplay never bothers to work through its own premise. Harold can hear his apparently omniscient narrator, but, inexplicably, she remains oblivious to his protestations - at least until he finally shows up at the reclusive author's penthouse apartment. So is his fate written in stone or not? What about the supporting characters? And what is this book actually about anyway? From what he hear of it, the 'literary masterpiece' Thompson is supposed to be writing is purest American treacle.
Director Marc Forster is a versatile talent (Monster's Ball; Finding Neverland) but he has a habit of trying to camouflage weaker material with visual flourishes (Stay). You can see it plainly here: while the stronger scenes between Ferrell and Hoffman and Ferrell and Gyllenhaal are shot in a straightforward manner, the stuff with Emma Thompson, her typewriter and her literary minder (a redundant Queen Latifah) are dressed up in obtuse camera angles, fancy cutting and CGI.
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