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Ferrell excels beyond comedian

Nov. 14, 2006


Admit it. It's crossed your mind on at least one occasion. What if your life were a novel, play or movie -- narrator and all? It would be cool as long as you were the screenwriter, director or at least executive producer, right? Scratch that.

You're waiting for the bus, and a voice from the cosmos announces, "Little did he know that events had been set in motion that would lead to his imminent death." Maybe not so fun anymore. I give you Stranger Than Fiction.

Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is a punctilious IRS agent living a tedious and banal life. He counts brush strokes as he brushes his teeth, hops on the white stripes of the crosswalk, goes to bed every night at 11:13 and has an uncanny ability to calculate large numbers in his head. Clever graph overlays straight out of The Sims illustrate Harold's strange mental processing.

While counting brush strokes one morning, an omniscient voice (Emma Thomas) begins narrating his every move. He continues through his day haunted by the voice, finally "cursing the heavens in futility" ("No, I'm not you, stupid voice; I'm cursing you ... so SHUT UP!") and is driven to seek professional help.

He first goes to a shrink played by Linda Hunt (I don't care how much Pixar denies it, this woman IS Edna Mode) who tells him he's schizophrenic and suggests he take medication. Harold is insistent that his life is being narrated, and she recommends him to literature Professor Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman).

Hilbert refuses to help at first, but when Harold mentions that the voice said "Little did he know ... " he's suddenly willing. "Little did he know? That's third person omniscient. I've writen papers on little did he know!" Any English or journalism major will get a kick out of that whole scene.

Harold and the professor begin to figure out what kind of story Harold is in ("Tragedy, you die. Comedy, you get hitched."), so they will be able to find the author and keep her from writing Harold's doom.

It's no secret that Thompson and Hoffman are superb actors, and they certainly deliver here. The surprise, however, comes from Ferrell.

I was looking for the role of Harold Crick to be for Ferrell what the role of Joel in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was for Jim Carrey. It is.

He holds his own even in a scene that requires him to cry opposite two-time Oscar recipient Hoffman. Add to that Harold's romance with bakery owner Anna Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) that had me "oooh-ing" and "aww-ing" with the worst of them, and I am certainly not going to withhold due accolades.

Apparently the studio big wigs do not think the public is ready to accept Ferrell as actor rather than comedian. The trailers and commercials are completely misleading, making you think this is Ferrell in an Elf-esque role, in another Ferrell-esque movie. Stranger Than Fiction is neither. It is funny, but in a controlled and bittersweet sort of way.

Penned by first-time screenwriter Zach Helm (who was named one of the "10 Writers to Watch" by Variety magazine and one of the "Best and Brightest" in Esquire magazine) and directed by Marc Forster of Monster's Ball and Finding Neverland, this movie has all the ingredients for greatness, but something is missing.

I wanted to love this movie. As a whole, it is very good but never quite great. One more run through Helm's typewriter, or one more spin through the editing room, could have made it just that.

Grade: B