'Stranger Than Fiction' a Sharp, Existential Story What sounds like a knockabout comic premise turns out to have some interesting nuances in Stranger Than Fiction, starring Will Farrell. Movie reviewer Bob Mondello says the story elements are cleverly blended with existential logic.
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'Stranger Than Fiction' a Sharp, Existential Story

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'Stranger Than Fiction' a Sharp, Existential Story

Review

Movies

'Stranger Than Fiction' a Sharp, Existential Story

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

The premise of the new movie Stranger Than Fiction sounds perfect for comedian Will Ferrell. He plays a man who discovers that he's a character in a novel and that his every action is narrated by the novel's author. But Bob Mondello says that what sounds like a knockabout comic premise turns out to have some interesting nuances.

BOB MONDELLO: 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 voices. Well, one voice really: an omniscient female narrator with a British accent. She talks about him as if he were a character in a novel as he does the things he usually does, like brushing his teeth.

(Soundbite of movie "Stranger Than Fiction")

Ms. EMMA THOMPSON (Actress): (As Kay Eiffel) When others' minds would fantasize about their upcoming day...

Mr. WILL FERRELL (Actor): (As Harold Crick) Hello?

Ms. THOMPSON: ...Harold just counted brush strokes.

Mr. FERRELL: All right, who just said Harold just counted brush strokes?

MONDELLO: This voice-of-God thing gets disconcerting enough after a few days that Harold decides to get outside help. And 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.

(Soundbite of movie "Stranger Than Fiction")

Mr. DUSTIN HOFFMAN (Actor): (As Professor Jules Hilbert) Are you the king of anything?

Mr. FERRELL: (As Crick) Like what?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Anything. King of the lanes at the local bowling alley.

Mr. FERRELL: King of the lanes?

Mr. HOFFMAN: King of the lanes, king of the trolls...

Mr. FERRELL: King of the trolls?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yes, a clandestine land found underneath your floorboards.

Mr. FERRELL: No.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Huh?

Mr. FERRELL: No. That's ridiculous.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Agreed, but let's start with ridiculous and move backwards.

MONDELLO: 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.

(Soundbite of movie "Stranger Than Fiction")

Ms. THOMPSON: (As Eiffel) Little did he know that events had been set in motion that would lead to his imminent death.

Mr. FERRELL: (As Crick) What? Why? Hello? Come on.

MONDELLO: The reason Harold is so upset is that everything the narrator has said would happen has actually happened. Now, this obviously has slapsticky possibilities, especially with Will Ferrell playing Harold and Emma 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 Gyllenhaal, for instance, he brings her flours - not the kind that blossom, the kind she can bake with. That's a nice conceit. And most of the storytelling is equally sharp, with characters defined not just by wardrobe but by the spaces they occupy, story elements blending with existential logic.

It's executed so cleverly, in fact, that up 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 its ending. Stranger Than Fiction does. But it also has the wit to comment on that fact. I'm Bob Mondello.

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