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ISSUE 120 VOL 8 PUBLISHED 11/17/2006

Ferrell reinvents himself in ‘Fiction’

By John Douglass
Variety Editor

Friday, November 17, 2006

Will Ferrell can best be described as the current king of comedy. He seems to be one of the most ubiquitous stars in Hollywood, and though he still occasionally turns out some solid stinkers, his movies are by and large some of the biggest around.

Unfortunately, his patented brand of wild, sophomoric, boisterous comedy is quickly becoming boring and clichéd. Fortunately, however, it seems Ferrell is taking notice, and his new effort, the breezy comedy “Stranger Than Fiction,” is a strong step in the right direction.

“Stranger Than Fiction” is the work of Marc Forster, one of the most bizarrely multi-faceted directors in the business. Previously known for “Monster's Ball” and “Finding Neverland,” two movies that could not be more different, Forster's only effort between those films and “Fiction” was the trippy horror film “Stay.” When a director is this willing to hop from genre to genre, it almost becomes a game to see what is coming next.

“Stranger Than Fiction” is a welcome addition to the oeuvre of recent comedy releases. The story is high-concept and refreshingly original. Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an IRS auditor whose life is excruciatingly uninspiring. His routine runs like clockwork: He rises at the exact same time every day, brushes his teeth with the exact same number of strokes and takes the exact same number of steps to catch the exact same bus every morning. The last time Harold Crick experienced any sort of change was definitely before “Celebrity Jeopardy” hit it big on “Saturday Night Live.”

Of course, as movies go, something is clearly going to shake up Harold Crick's monotonous life, and in this case, it is a voice. Crick begins to hear a women's voice (Emma Thompson's to be exact) narrating his life. She is not present and it seems she is omniscient. Crick describes her as speaking about him “accurately, but with a better vocabulary.”

The voice belongs to a famous writer named Karen Eiffel, who is unaware that Harold Crick, the protagonist in her new novel, is actually a real person. The action kicks off when Crick hears the voice intimate “little did he know, events had been set into motion that would lead to his imminent death.” He begins a madcap search to find the source of the voice, and the movie’s strange, postmodern premise is in full swing.

Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Ana Pascal, the anarchist baker whom Ferrell is auditing for tax fraud, and her morph from his antithesis to his love interest is genuine and exciting. Dustin Hoffman is stolidly hilarious as Jules Hilbert, the English professor whom Harold seeks out in his quest to discover the identity of the voice. Hilbert's sleuthing leads to an uproarious succession of scenes in which Crick attempts to determine whether his story is a comedy or a tragedy.

Ferrell puts aside his former frat boy mugging in his heartfelt portrayal of Harold Crick. He plays the role simply, with a constant deadpan that only occasionally breaks down, producing alternately funny and moving results. It is refreshing to see him take such a new direction. This change certainly bodes well for the longevity of his career.

Forster's direction is at once creative and completely understated. In the beginning of the film, he fills the screen with constantly changing charts as a pictorial representation of Crick's continuously calculating mind. This conceit is entirely necessary in a film so focused on the inner workings of the psyche, and while it initially seems foreign, it quickly becomes the norm and the cause of an occasional laugh.

Another scene is also indicative of Forster's direction. Crick meets the touchy-feely human resources director in an office with walls painted electric blue with bright, elementary school-like white clouds. As the shot centers on Crick, deadpan as ever, the clouds on the wall behind him slowly begin to move. That is the kind of subtle direction that lifts Forster's work above the fold.

“Stranger Than Fiction” is at heart a simple story of one man's attempt to leave his drab life behind and find love. Yet it is the creativity of Crick's journey which gives this movie long-lasting appeal.

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