Much was written about Will Ferrell's first "dramatic role" as Harold Crick, an IRS auditor who begins hearing a voice narrating his life. But Stranger Than Fiction is hardly a drama. However, what Ferrell does--like Jim Carrey before him in The Truman Show--is handle a toned-down character with genuineness and affection: you believe he is this guy. Crick leads a lonely life filled with numbers and routines. While at first he considers the voice a nuisance, Crick decides more action is needed when it speaks of "his demise." Enter Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), who takes on the absurd notion with revelry, trying to find out what kind of book Crick's life is leading. It turns out that the voice Crick is hearing belongs to Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a very real--and troubled--author who is writing a book in which Crick is a fictional character. As usual with these things, the stuffed shirt learns to live a better life--Crick even falls for one of his audits, a brash baker named Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal).
Marc Foster (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland) has the right tone for the film, using great urban scenes (the unnamed city is Chicago) with interesting visualisations of Crick's world of numbers. He also directs Ferrell, Hoffman, and Gyllenhaal to their most charming performances (plus Linda Hunt and Tom Hulce pop up in two funny scenes). Ferrell succeeds in being a romantic lead you can root for; a scene where he eats Ana's freshly baked cookies is totally delightful without a hint of sarcasm. Screenwriter Zach Helm has two personal traits with his story: like Crick he followed his heart (he stopped re-writing scripts and only worked on his own) and like Eiffel, the final results are not a masterpiece, but good, and entertaining enough. Britt Daniel of the band Spoon worked on the dynamite soundtrack. --Doug Thomas
Known to most audiences for his hilarious characters, funnyman Will Ferrell continues to try his hand at more serious material with Stranger Than Fiction. The film comes as relatively light fare for director Marc Foster, whose previous works were Finding Neverland and Monster's Ball. While not exactly a drama, the film shifts between humorous and heavy realms, one of its central questions being: 'What makes a comedy or a tragedy?' In Winter Passing and Melinda And Melinda, Ferrell awkwardly occupied a strange space that was neither clearly dramatic nor comedic, leaving audiences confused over whether to laugh at the actor or with him. Here, in the role of boring Harold Crick he appears a bit more at ease, as Harold is not expected to be funny--funny things just happen to him. Instead of depending on Ferrell for jokes, the film delivers laughs on its own by exploring what happens when an IRS agent with a dull, solitary life receives unwanted company in the form of an intrusive female voice narrating his every move. As distracting as this is, things become truly worrisome when the narrator (Emma Thompson as an eccentric author) informs Harold of his looming death. How Harold's life changes as a result of this terrifying knowledge depends largely on wacky Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) and on tax evading baker/love interest Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal). While Queen Latifah's role as an author's assistant is underdeveloped, Tony Hale brings an innocent charm as Harold's co-worker and only friend. At times, the film's take on existentialist themes feels strikingly familiar, and is clearly influenced by features like Adaption and I Heart Huckabees. Among its strengths, the film features interesting sets seemingly influenced by the 1950s version of the future, and functions as a small step forward for Ferrell.