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Monday, November 13, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

Starring: Will Ferrell, Dustin Hoffman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emma Thompson

Stranger Than Fiction
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Synopsis: Karen Effiel is an author writing her latest novel about an isolated man named Harold Crick. What she doesn't know is that her fictionalized character is real. The real Harold Crick is an IRS agent who has lived a dull existence and one day begins to hear Karen's voice as she narrates what she puts on paper to what Harold has and is doing. Because of this Harold insists the help of a literary professor to find out what is happening and ends up changing things about his life including beginning a relationship with his IRS client, a government-hating bakery owner named Ana Pascal. Harold, however, finds trouble when he hears that Karen plans to kill him.

Review: Will Ferrell playing a bland tax man who’s every move is narrated by the irritating drones of Emma Thompson may not sound like an enticing prospect, but strangely this film has a lot to offer and its scriptwriter Zach Helm is the hot new kid on the Hollywood block.

Helm’s script is shaped in the same mould as a Charlie Kauffman tome, providing an interesting and imaginative insight into the troubled world of being a writer with a strange twist, deftly handled by director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland).

Set in present day Chicago, Stranger Than Fiction follows a dull, single tax agent called Harold Crick (Ferrell) whose life is like an endless Groundhog day with everything timed and controlled down to the number of strokes of his toothbrush. We hear a female voice narrating his morning schedule and his trip to work, his arrival at work, his day and his solitary evening. So far you get the impression this is just another Truman Show. But the premise of the film changes when suddenly Crick can also hear the voice correctly predicting what he will do next and, worst of all, announcing that his death is imminent.

The woman’s voice is that of Karen Eiffel (Thompson), a lonely and depressed novelist with writer’s block struggling to find an appropriate way to kill off Crick, the lead character in her book, oblivious to the fact that he actually exists.

Crick quickly discovers that only he can hear the voice and is distracted as he goes out to audit the rather lovely looking local baker, Ana, (Maggie Gyllenhaal) listening as the voice tells him how attracted he is to her. Desperate to avoid his death, he sets about discovering who is narrating his life, enlisting the help of a literary theorist called Jules Hilibert, played brilliantly by an obsessive-compulsive Dustin Hoffman, who suggests that he turn his story from a tragedy to a comedy and embark on a love story with Ana.

Stranger Than Fiction Stranger Than Fiction
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The climactic ending sees Crick eventually catch up with Eiffel (Thompson) as she is torn between finishing her masterpiece and therefore finishing him off in reality or saving him and going against what she has done in every other book she has written.

Ferrell’s performance is beautifully understated with none, or very few, of the eccentricities we have come to expect from The Anchorman. He is ably supported on his journeys by the subtly humorous Hoffman and the surprisingly funny Thompson who pulls off the suicidal writer role with aplomb and even manages to generate scenes of genuine warmth and emotion with Ferrell, if overacting a little in the process.

I was fortunate enough to get to see this film at a Bafta screening, courtesy of a generous colleague, the downside being that I had to listen to geriatric Bafta members waffle effusive praise on the cast members in the Q&A session afterwards. But that was a small price to pay for what proved to be an enjoyable viewing experience, especially seeing Hoffman trade comedy blows with Ferrell.

Stranger Than Fiction
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