287 – Stranger than Fiction

It’s been said that when an comedic actor decides to take a turn at dramatic emoting, the results usually veer more toward the cloying, oversentimental than toward the sincere. (Think Bill Murray in The Razor’s Edge, not two decades later in Lost in Translation.) And Will Ferrell, star of such wacky fun as Anchorman and Ricky Bobby, wouldn’t at first glance seem to be the type of actor with the necessary range to carry a dramatic role. But Ferrell, miraculously, pulls it off.

Harold Crick (Ferrell) is an IRS auditor who’s, shall we say, fastidious. He has routines, you see, from the number of brushstrokes his teeth get to the number of steps he takes to get to his bus stop. A place for everything, and everything in its place. In short, the sort of punctual, detail-oriented soul that an entity such as the IRS love to have on its side.

Everything’s moving along smoothly for Harold, at least as much as it’s moving at all. He lives a solitary life both in and out of work and has no dreams or ambitions. But everything changes when he’s brushing his teeth one morning and hears a British woman’s voice narrating his actions.

Bearing in mind that Harold’s well-ordered life could hardly stand even the slightest deviance, it’s easy to see how he might completely wig out over this, and that’s about what happens. The HR department wants to talk to him, and then he’s shuffled over to an in-house doctor (Tom Hulce) and then finally to a college professor (Dustin Hoffman), who tries to figure out the identity of Harold’s mysterious novelist through literary means.

So now things aren’t moving along smoothly, although they are moving along. Until Harold hears some ominous words in his head that suggest that he’ll soon be killed off.

In the hands of a comedic actor who lacks range, this would have been a maudlin, treacly pile of goo. But because Ferrell is so wonderfully understated, you instantly empathize with Harold. And that’s no small feat, considering the wild implausibility of hearing someone’s voice in your head; the movie ran the real risk of alienating its audience when it desperately needed it to identify with the main character.

Another highlight is the sweet, caring relationship that develops between Harold and Gyllenhaal’s character, Ana. Physically, they’re an oddball couple – he’s quite tall, she’s quite not – and personality-wise the two actors seem kind of a mismatch. But although their characters suffer through some necessary awkwardness, the two actors are able to make their union believable and desirable. In other words, they look great together.

As Kay Eiffel, the novelist in Harold’s head, Emma Thompson brings a coffee-and-cigarettes nihilism to the role; she’s supposed to kill Harold off, but she doesn’t know quite how to do that; her publisher has sent her an assistant (the always solid Queen Latifah) to encourage things so Eiffel meets her deadline.

Thanks to beautiful performances by Will Ferrell and Maggie Gyllenhaal, an exceptional supporting cast, and a script that doesn’t nosedive into oversentimentality but does sprinkle in some genuine laughs, Stranger than Fiction is an exuberant, charming film.

***

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