'Stranger Than Fiction'

EntertainmentMoviesAccounting and AuditingWill FerrellBookDeathMaggie Gyllenhaal

When screenwriter Zach Helm was a young man -- younger, anyway; he's now31 -- he gravitated to the impishly articulate works of Tom Stoppard, asso many young writers do. In particular, he fell for the early Stoppardplay "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," in which a couple of minorcharacters from Shakespeare's "Hamlet" mull their roles in someoneelse's tragedy, which unfolds at the whim of an unseen but all-powerfulwriter.

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

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

Shadowed by a publisher-appointed adviser (Queen Latifah), Eiffel cannotfind a fulfilling way to eliminate Crick. The auditor, who is smittenwith the kind-hearted baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) whose tax returns he isstudying, gleans advice from the professor (Hoffman) about how to avoiddeath by literary execution. Crick needs to know: Is he in a tragedy ora comedy? Can he alter his own literary fate?

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

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

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

"Stranger Than Fiction"

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

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