Stranger Than Fiction

2006, Movie, PG-13, 113 mins


A trippy trifle from the Charlie Kaufman/Michel Gondry school of pop metafiction, STRANGER THAN FICTION is first-time screenwriter Zach Helm's existential riff on the angst of an ordinary fellow who discovers that what he thought was his life is actually a fictional construct, and whether he lives or dies is at the whim of a high-strung novelist. IRS agent Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is a drab, sober fellow whose life of quiet desperation is measured in precise, inconsequential increments: toothbrush strokes, steps on the staircase, bus schedules, minutes in coffee breaks and audited files per box. Crick has no discernable passions, eccentricities or imagination, so why is he suddenly hearing voices? Or more precisely, voice: a dry, fastidious, English-accented voice narrating the humdrum minutiae of his so-called life. IRS shrink-in-residence Dr. Cayly (Tom Hulce) prescribes a vacation, and flinty Dr. Mittag-Leffler (Linda Hunt) suspects schizophrenia, but once Harold hears the voice intone "little did he know... " he knows it's not in his head. So he takes his troubles to a professor of literature (Dustin Hoffman), who advises him on the finer points of narrative manipulation and suggests that if he's really worried about being killed off, the best thing he can do is exert whatever influence he has to turn his story into a comedy. Maybe by falling in love with someone who appears to be his exact opposite but is in fact his perfect match — comedies, after all, end in marriage, not funerals. So Harold clumsily sets about wooing sharp-tongued, antiauthoritarian baker Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), whose tax return he's auditing. Could there be a match less likely than a cog in the tax-collecting machine and a principled scofflaw? Little does he know that reclusive novelist Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), who's spent 10 years wrestling with her current project, is a tragedian to the core, and her specialty is executing her characters at the very moment when they have the most to live for. At heart a Twilight Zone yarn that Rod Serling would have wrapped up in 30 minutes, from setup to moral (that the prospect of death can bring a desiccated soul to life), Helm's gimmicky tale benefits from director Marc Foster's light, steady hand. Foster finds the common ground on which his eclectic cast can meet (no small feat when they range from brassy Queen Latifah to Arrested Development's deadpan Tony Hale) and keeps the story's sweetness from devolving into saccharine kitsch. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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