I’m finding that the older I get, the movies that interest me the most are the ones that try to do things that no one has tried before. Even if they aren’t wholly successful, at least they’re pushing the boundaries, and are original – a precious commodity in this age of sequels and “reboots.”
“Stranger than Fiction,” directed by Marc Forster and starring Will Ferrell, is just such a movie. This is a movie that you really have to pay attention to, as I discovered upon first viewing when I was so tired I could barely keep my eyes open. It tells the story of Harold Crick (Ferrell), an IRS agent with OCD who one morning suddenly begins to hear a voice narrating his life. The movie also tells the story of the narrator, Kay Eiffel (played by Emma Thompson), an author who is suffering from writer’s block, and cannot quite figure out how to deal with her main character – Harold. So are we to believe that Harold lives in a fictional world? Or is Harold truly schizophrenic, as a psychiatrist suggests early on in the movie?
It is with the character of Professor Jules Hibbert (a great, understated performance from Dustin Hoffman) that the two worlds are bridged. Declining a pharmaceutical cure to his ills, Harold seeks out Dr. Hibbert to try and determine, based on the narration he is hearing in his head, who might be writing the story of his life. On Dr. Hibbert’s advice, Harold tries to figure out whether he is living out a tragedy, or a comedy. And in doing so, he becomes closer to the young woman that he is auditing, a law student turned baker named Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhall) who, through the sheer force of her personality, begins to bring Harold out of his shell.
All of the performances – those listed above, plus other supporting roles from Tom Hulce, Linda Hunt and Queen Latifah – are spot on. But the real revelation is Will Ferrell, who here plays it straight in much the same way that Bill Murray played it straight in “Lost in Translation.” Frankly, I’ve never been a big Ferrell fan, and I didn’t think he had this performance in him. But based on the evidence of “Stranger than Fiction,” Ferrell’s real future is in the kind of understated roles that other comics like Steve Martin and Robin Williams have succeeded in.
If I had to choose on word to describe “Stranger than Fiction,” I think it would be “delightful.” Whether one world, the other, or both is a fantasy is ultimately irrelevant. The direction is crisp, the acting is sharp, and the story leaves you wanting more. And, the use of music is terrific – always a plus in my book.