[box cover]

Stranger Than Fiction

IRS auditor Harold Crick ( Will Ferrell) hears a voice in his head. A narrator's voice. "It's telling me what I've already done — accurately, and with a better vocabulary," Harold explains to a bemused literature professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman). The voice belongs to reclusive novelist Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), who lives across town in Chicago; between her frequent cigarette breaks, she's (unwittingly) writing the story of Harold Crick's life. Unfortunately for the auditor, Kay's novel-in-progress is titled Death and Taxes. And as soon as she types up the last few pages, Harold Crick is going to die. He takes little comfort in the fact that the death will probably be poetic. With its fanciful conceit, arty touches, and existential forays, Stranger than Fiction (2006) plays like a mainstreamed riff on the whole Kaufman/Jonze/Gondry vibe. It's a sort of crowd-pleasing art film (which is not necessarily an insult.) The little schematic diagrams that track Harold's too-linear existence are a witty use of special effects that echoes Edward Norton's walk through the Ikea catalog in Fight Club. Zach Helm's script is very funny and occasionally shocking, as when we find ourselves dropped into Kay's death fantasies. A good line in the movie is Kay's, when her assistant (Queen Latifah) suggests she try a nicotine patch: "I don't need a nicotine patch," Kay replies. "I smoke cigarettes." Another one comes in a terrific scene where Prof. Hilbert — who advises Harold on his life as if they were in a Graduate Writing Program — asks a deadpan series of questions designed to sort out what kind of story Harold's in: "Are you the king of anything?… Are you relieved to find out you're not a golem?" Thompson offers a funny, weird, un-pretty performance as the near-autistic hermit novelist; it's great to see her back on screen in something that isn't Nanny McPhee. But maybe the best thing about Stranger than Fiction is the way it extracts unexpected work from underrated actors. As a comic, Will Ferrell's greatest strength is his ability to go dumb-animal blank. He puts it to great use here in a genuine dramatic turn, as the narration forces Harold to examine his dreamless life. "You don't control your fate," concludes Prof. Hilbert mid-film, and it's incredibly freeing — what will Harold do to seize the day until the typewriter clacks? At one point, as he tries to woo the sexy, tax-dodging baker he's auditing (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Harold keeps a ledger to determine if his story is a comedy or a tragedy. It's easy to root for comedy, and a little painful when Ferrell says (through tears) "I can't die right now. It's just really bad timing." If Stranger Than Fiction drops the ball at all, it drops it in three specific ways. The application of the narrator conceit is uneven: Thompson's voice disappears for long stretches so the romance can develop in peace. Gyllenhaal's turn from hate to love is sort of lamely abrupt (though it hardly derails her charm). And the final act — which brings the storytelling-commenting-on-itself literary conceit back to the fore — doesn't feel as satisfying or dramatically nutritious as the rest of the film. However, each viewer's reaction to the ending probably says as much about their own personal movie tastes as it does about the ending itself — it may not be intentional, but the script places a mirror in front of us and asks us what we want from art.

Sony's DVD release of Stranger Than Fiction offers a very good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include six behind-the-scenes featurettes (but without a "play all" option), two deleted scenes, and previews for other Sony theatrical titles. Keep-case.
Mike Russell

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