Stranger Than Fiction
Directed by Marc Forster

Written by Zach Helm

Starring Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, Emma Thompson


Stranger Than Fiction

I admire Will Ferrell for venturing as an actor into areas that go far beyond "Elf" and "Talladega Nights." He's brave to try and play a straight role, but when he chooses to enter a fantasy like "Stranger Than Fiction," in what you might call the world of Charlie Kaufman ("Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation"), in order to play a most ordinary man, he no longer has our attention; he's too ordinary to carry the film.

That's what has happened in "Stranger Than Fiction," and instead of being the still point at the center of a marvelous invention he's just the dull, dull point. Which is a shame, because the film has a marvelous premise: Ferrell is Harold Crick, an IRS auditor in the Chicago office; he lives alone, is rigid in all his actions, is not stupid but simply compulsive. Meanwhile, successful author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is having a hell of a time with writer's block; she can't finish off the central character in her latest novel, a character whose name happens to be Harold Crick. And now Harold, the live one, begins hearing her narrator's voice in his head as she tries to complete the book. Chainsmoking and crabby, she even considers suicide.

Her publisher sends her an assistant/minder, Penny (Queen Latifah), whose job is to keep Kay's nose to the grindstone. But as she starts writing again and edges Harold closer to the edge, he begins looking for help to get that voice out of his head. A psychiatrist recommends that he try a literary expert - Dustin Hoffman as a professor - who inadvertently identifies Kay as the source of the voice.

In the meantime Harold finds himself auditing Ana, a delicious free spirit (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an anarchist baker who doesn't pay part of her taxes on principle, and who brings some desperately needed life and sexiness to the film, which has been droning on for more than an hour without going anywhere.

The film was directed by Marc Forster, who made the excellent "Monster's Ball" and "Finding Neverland," but unlike those films he's somehow slowed down the pace of "Stranger Than Fiction" to where it seems stuck in molasses; we just wait for the film to catch up with us. This is the first feature by screenwriter Zach Helm. It's inventive enough in concept that the payoff should at least match the premise. Unfortunately, it seems as though the inspiration ran out about ten minutes too early.