Stranger Than Fiction
Director: Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Monster's Ball)
Writer: Zach Helm
Producer: Lindsay Doran
Starring: Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 113 min
read my spoiler disclaimer

by Andrew James
     "Death and Taxes." That is the name of the book our main character finds himself "victim" to in Stranger Than Fiction. What seems like it might be a slapstick, hilarious movie (especially with Wil Ferrell in the lead) is actually a touching and sentimental movie about the good things in life and how one simple gesture can change your entire world.

      Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick. The most boring guy on the planet is a tax auditor for the IRS and lives his life exactly the same everyday, obsessive compulsively. Until one day, quite unexplainably, he begins hearing a voice of someone narrating his every action. The narrator is apparently writing a story about Harold's life and its tedium. One day, as Harold waits for the bus, the narrator's voice (played by Emma Thompson) booms out that Harold will soon die. And so begins Harold's quest to find out why and when. He seeks the outside help of a professor of literature, played cleverly and quickly by the always great Dustin Hoffman (probably my favorite character in the movie), who helps Harold figure out who the voice is and why it's happening. Along the way, Harold begins a seemingly doomed, flirtatious relationship with a baker whom he is auditing played by an extremely cute, Maggie Gyllenhaal.

      While watching Stranger Than Fiction, I couldn't help but be reminded in so many ways of 1998's "The Truman Show" starring Jim Carrey. Most notably, they both feature an over-the-top, physical comedian at the heart of a slightly more serious role for (almost) the first time. Both also start off with the absurdity of the situation brimming with hilarious possibilities that don't disappoint. Both films also involve a matter of fate and trying to break that sense of inevitability by discovering who we are inside. Cheesy, I know, but in both cases, delightfully cheesy.

      All the roles are played to perfection in this movie. Ferrell's Harold is as likable as any I've ever seen (though admittedly stuffy and boring). His chemistry with Gyllenhaal seems a little shaky with the obvious age difference and general opposites in physical attractiveness. Still, they're both so nice that the old adage of "opposites attract" makes for love destined to be that really works. Gyllenhaal has become a fantastic actress in her own right and has had a slew of brilliant roles this year (likely to get her nominated in the upcoming award season). No awards in this particular case, but her role is cute and magnetic and doesn't fail to impress.

      Thompson plays Kay Eiffel, the stressed out, bordering on suicidal author with 10 year old writer's bloc. Her assistant, is a completely useless and pointless role played by Latifah, who helps Kay come up with a continuing story-line for Harold. Neither of these characters are particulaly interesting, but they both do what they can with the role; particularly the veteran Thompson who is just fidgety and quirky enough to make me believe she's actually a starving artist type who hasn't worked for ten years but still lives in a decent apartment in New York City.

      So why not a full thumbs up you might ask. Well again, as with The Truman Show, I could see where the story was going at every turn. Although fun, care-free and generally enjoyable, I was never surprsied or touched deeply at any point during the story. It's easy to see what will happen and how it will end. So without the element of surprise, at least for me personally, I will admit to a touch of boredom. That is until at any given time the next scene pops up and more snappy dialogue and unique, interesting characters brighten up the screen once again.

      Plus, it never becomes clear why or how this is all possible. It has something to do with a magic wristwatch Harold always wears that tries to tell him what to do, but nothing is ever adequately explained. It doesn't really matter in this kind of a story and it might seem stupid to question why. It shouldn't bother, but it does... just a little. A minor nitpick that probably nobody else will care about. But it will now that I've brought it up. Smile.

      There probably won't be any Oscar nomination here (except for the slight possibility for screenplay). And the story is predictable not hilarious as you may expect from the trailers. Most of the film is made up of a bunch of wonderfully narrated experiences of Harold. His trip to the guitar store, a chance encounter on the bus and that realization that cookies really are good all make for fine viewing. It's also original enough and happy enough to make a trip to the theater a pleasant experience. Much like, as Harold discovers, life is full of great things; as long as you live your life to the fullest, until it's over.

Press "PLAY" to watch the trailer

Links: - full cast and crew
Official Site
FLIXSTER PROFILE for Stranger Than Fiction