'Stranger Than Fiction' a Sharp, Existential Story

Stranger Than Fiction

Will Farrell in Stranger Than Fiction. Columbia Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Columbia Pictures

The premise of the new movie Stranger Than Fiction sounds perfect for comedian Will Farrell. He plays a man who discovers that he's a character in a novel, and that his every action is controlled by the novel's author.

But what sounds like a knockabout comic premise turns out to have some interesting nuances.

Harold Crick is the most boring guy you can imagine. A tax auditor for the IRS, he has no life, not even a fantasy life, which makes it strange when he starts to hear a voice. It's an omnicient female narrator (Emma Thompson) with a British accent, talking about HIM, as he does the things he usually does... like brushing his teeth.

The voice-of-God thing gets disconcerting enough after a few days that Harold decides to get outside help. Since his problem is a narrator, he goes to a literary critic — played by Dustin Hoffman — who asks him a series of questions to determine what kind of a story the narrator is telling.

The critic figures that by a process of elimination, he can figure out what's likely to happen to Harold, but it's a slow process, and Harold may not have a lot of time.

The reason Harold is so upset is that everything the narrator has SAID would happen, has actually happened. And while writers' block seems to have his author stymied for the moment, he can hardly count on that staying the case.

The slapstick possibilities are obviously, especially with Farrell playing Harold and Thompson playing a semi-suicidal author with Queen Latifah as her assistant. But the actors and the filmmakers all take a more restrained approach than you might expect, keeping the humor gentle, and the jokes mostly as literary as the premise.

When Harold gets involved with a lovely young baker played by Maggie Gyllenhall, for instance, he brings her flours — not the kind with blossoms, the kind she can bake with. A nice conceit.

Most of the storytelling is equally sharp. Characters are defined by the spaces they occupy and story elements blend with existential logic.

It's executed so cleverly in fact, that until the last five minutes it may not even occur to you that a movie about an author who has trouble with endings is likely to have trouble with an ending of its own.

And so it does. But Stranger Than Fiction also has the wit to comment on that development, too.

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