Stranger than Fiction (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Stranger than Fiction does a lot of things exceedingly well and almost none poorly. It takes a great premise and runs with it, neither wasting opportunities nor going off on tangents. It features strong work from both the main and supporting actors, and manages seamlessly to incorporate both humor and poignancy. I was expecting Stranger than Fiction to be funny; I had not anticipated it to be as touching as it is. Director Marc Forster and screenwriter Zach Helm reveal great affection for their characters, and this is apparent in every frame of the finished picture.

Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is a member of the anonymous masses - an IRS agent whose daily routine is dominated by numbers, not words or human interaction. For him, every day is like every other; for twelve years, he has lived a life of solitude. Then comes a mysterious Wednesday when Harold begins to hear a voice. Although he doesn't realize it at the time, this is not the voice of god or fate, but of author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), and she's narrating Harold's experiences. At first, he thinks his toothbrush or tie is talking to him, but then he figures out what's going on: he's the main character in someone else's book. Kay's voice is an annoyance until she mentions that, little does he know, his death is around the corner. This forces Harold to seek help. A psychiatrist (Linda Hunt) thinks he needs to be medicated. A literary professor (Dustin Hoffman) gives him different advice. Although not believing Harold's tale, he advises the tax man to figure out whether he's in a comedy or a tragedy. Initial signs point to the latter.

Meanwhile, Harold's job takes him to a bakery to audit Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the baker. She explains to him why she didn't pay her taxes, showers him with insults, then does everything possible to make his job tough. Harold responds by staring at her breasts, stumbling over his words, and generally making an ass out of himself. Meanwhile, the voice keeps making observations Harold is uncomfortable with. Eventually, Ana takes pity on Harold and bakes him some cookies. In the words of one of cinema's immortal characters, this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Now, Harold has something to live for, which means it's imperative for him to locate the omnipotent force that is directing his actions.

This isn't Will Ferrell's first attempt at straight acting. He was okay in Melinda and Melinda and not so great in Winter Passing, but he's very good here, developing a likable character and never going over-the-top. He's funny when the script wants him to be, and heroic or tragic when that's called for. His chemistry with Maggie Gyllenhaal is palpable. Speaking of Gyllenhaal, who glows, this is another wonderful performance in a line of them. If she doesn't get nominated for something early next year, it will be a travesty. She has elevated everything from World Trade Center to Trust the Man to this movie, not to mention her powerhouse lead portrayal in Sherrybaby. Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson are fine in supporting roles. Queen Latifa is wasted as Kay's assistant. One wonders if the bulk of her work ended up on the cutting room floor, because it's hard to believe she would otherwise accept such a thankless role.

Once upon a time, Hollywood films used the slogan "You laugh and you'll cry" to get people into theaters. That's literally true of Stranger than Fiction. Forster, who moved outside of the mainstream with Monsters Ball and Stay, comes back into the fold here, but that shouldn't be seen as a negative. This movie has the star power and potential for widespread appeal, but it's more intelligent than what we usually get from the studios. Nothing in Stranger than Fiction is cookie-cutter or formula driven. It's predictable in short spans, but not in an overall sense. The visuals are playful (Ferrell's numbers obsessions are colorfully illustrated on the screen with a series of overlays) but the emotional impact is not. Stranger than Fiction is a wonderful cinematic experience - a welcome way to spend a chilly autumn evening.

Stranger than Fiction (United States, 2006)

Director: Marc Forster
Cast: Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah
Screenplay: Zach Helm
Cinematography: Roberto Schaefer
Music: Britt Daniel, Brian Reitzell
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Ranked #9 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2006
Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 2006-11-10
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1