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Film review: ‘Stranger’ amusing, rewarding

Movie a comic fantasy with some whimsical and bizarre touches

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STRANGER THAN FICTION — *** — Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman; rated PG-13 (vulgarity, profanity, violence, brief nudity, brief drugs).

"Stranger Than Fiction" was not written by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman — who gave us such whimsy as "Being John Malkovich" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." But it could have been.

Written by first-time screenwriter Zach Helm and directed by Marc Forster ("Finding Neverland"), "Stranger Than Fiction" is a comic fantasy with whimsical and bizarre touches that bring Kaufman to mind — although this one is a bit softer and sweeter.

And while some of the film's literary motifs and devices might at first be a bit confusing, on whole it's pretty amusing and rewarding — and certainly one of the better vehicles to star Will Ferrell.

He stars as Harold Crick, an IRS tax auditor whose life is made up of a series of mind-numbing routines. But he doesn't know any better and is content to live his shallow existence. That is, until he starts hearing a voice in his head (Emma Thompson), an unseen "narrator" who seems to know everything he does — as he's doing it. And lately, she has been uttering dire forecasts of Crick's impending death.

When mental-health professionals turn out to be no help, the desperate auditor consults a literary professor, Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), who humors Crick's notions that he may be a fictional character. Hilbert also suggests that Crick begin enjoying his life and encourages the social misfit to romance Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an anarchist baker he's supposed to be auditing.

Forster, who's gaining a reputation as an actor's director, coaxes a real performance out of Ferrell, who's appropriately subdued (think Jim Carrey in "The Truman Show"). That allows Thompson, Gyllenhaal and Hoffman to steal scenes and garner as many yuks as Ferrell. Queen Latifah, however, is underutilized in a secondary role as a writing assistant.

"Stranger Than Fiction" is rated PG-13 for some sexual material, including language (suggestive talk and profanity — primarily, one use of the so-called "R-rated" curse word), vehicular violence (a bus crash), brief male nudity and brief drug content (references). Running time: 107 minutes.


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com