Movie review: 'Stranger Than Fiction'

EntertainmentMoviesBookAccounting and AuditingWill FerrellQueen LatifahEmma Thompson

3 stars (out of four)

When screenwriter Zach Helm was a young man--younger, anyway; he's now 31--he gravitated to the impishly articulate works of Tom Stoppard, as so many young writers do. In particular he fell for the early Stoppard play "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," in which a couple of minor characters from Shakespeare's "Hamlet" mull their roles in someone else's tragedy, which unfolds at the whim of an unseen but all-powerful writer.

With "Stranger Than Fiction" Helm offers a breezy variation on Stoppard's conundrum. A toothsome slice of mainstream eccentricity, the film is easy-access existentialism with a happy ending. It deserves an audience, if only because it proves how handily Will Ferrell can handle a fairly radical key change in terms of comedy.

The best scenes in director Marc Forster's picture are those between Ferrell, playing a fellow who hears a strange voice narrating in his head, and Dustin Hoffman, portraying a literature professor who appears to exist on a diet of coffee and tight-lipped inquiry. Ferrell's Harold Crick lives a deeply routinized existence as an Internal Revenue Service auditor. One day he realizes that the female voice in his head commenting on his workaday habits is actually a novelist, narrating Crick's life story. Crick is a character in a book being written by reclusive author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson).

Shadowed by a publisher-appointed adviser (Queen Latifah), Eiffel cannot find a fulfilling way to eliminate Crick. The auditor, who is smitten with the kind-hearted baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) whose tax returns he is studying, gleans advice from the professor (Hoffman) about how to avoid death by literary execution. Crick needs to know: Is he in a tragedy or a comedy? Can he alter his own literary fate?

In his plum supporting role Hoffman makes the most of his scenes while expending the least amount of sweat. This is Zen muttering at its highest plateau, beyond effortless and very droll. The same is true of Ferrell's performance, which is consciously restrained in ways it takes a while to get used to. The movie may be a bit arch and doesn't have a lot of breathing room. But when Ferrell and Hoffman begin to hash out the Ferrell character's predicament, "Stranger Than Fiction" hits its stride and the result is a battle of the deadpan all-stars.

Screenwriter Helm, who has a sharp, precise way with banter, owes a considerable debt to the dual-reality-plane excursions of Charlie Kaufman ("Adaptation," "Being John Malkovich"). Shot in Chicago, "Stranger Than Fiction" stakes out a narrative realm not unlike Kaufman's rueful comic love stories, but this one's lighter and sweeter and, in the end, satisfying. Forster, who previously directed "Finding Neverland" and "Monster's Ball," manages to get everyone on the same earnest wavelength. While Forster errs in one key visual strategy--Crick's obsession with routine and numbers comes with an array of fancy visual aids, too fancy for my taste--he plays against cuteness. The whole of "Stranger Than Fiction" constitutes a high-wire act, brought off with elan.

Live your life to the fullest, the movie says. Nothing new there, but it's a nice reminder. The film's choicest lesson, though, relates to making brittle comic fantasy work on-screen. The lesson is this: The deader the deadpan the better. When Ferrell and Hoffman do their thing together, a charming bit of whimsy becomes something more. It becomes really, really funny.

mjphillips@tribune.com

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'Stranger Than Fiction'

Directed by Marc Forster; screenplay by Zach Helm; cinematography by Roberto Schaefer; edited by Matt Chesse; production design by Kevin Thompson; music by Britt Daniel and Brian Reitzell; produced by Lindsay Doran. A Columbia Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:53. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some disturbing images, sexuality, brief language and nudity).

Harold Crick - Will Ferrell

Ana Pascal - Maggie Gyllenhaal

Jules Hilbert - Dustin Hoffman

Penny Escher - Queen Latifah

Karen Eiffel - Emma Thompson

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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EntertainmentMoviesBookAccounting and AuditingWill FerrellQueen LatifahEmma Thompson
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