Will Ferrell tones it down in a fractured fairy tale - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

Will Ferrell tones it down in a fractured fairy tale

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Posted: Thursday, November 9, 2006 1:12 pm | Updated: 3:13 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Craig Outhier reviews 5 new movies

So “Stranger Than Fiction” is feelgood pap — gonna make something of it? Starring Will Ferrell as a loner who stars in a book about his own life, this coyly offbeat comedy suggests the avant-garde scenarios of Charlie Kaufman (“Adaptation”) retooled to reflect mainstream sympathies.

It’s pretend avant garde, a spirited if all-too-precious defense of fairy-tale escapism itself.

Ferrell (“Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby”) is a far cry from his usual blubbery man-clown self as Harold Crick, an emotionless, near-robotic IRS auditor whose entire life is ruled by numbers and routine.

His coffee breaks are exactly 4.3 minutes long. Every night, he hits the sack promptly at 11:13. (Ferrell’s lack of affect really is spooky. Who knew he could be capable of such reserve without, say, handfuls of Zoloft?)

Crick’s slavishly routine existence is thrown into upheaval when a disembodied female voice (which only he can hear) begins to proffer droll, withering criticism of his foibles. “It’s just a voice in my head … with a better vocabulary,” the baffled accountant tells his shrink.

The narration provides an ofttimes hilarious borehole into Crick’s long-suppressed id, particularly when he meets Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a tax-evading bakeshop owner with a sexily anti-authoritarian attitude: “Harold imagined her long legs dashing from tear gas clouds,” the voice intones, one of first-time screenwriter Zach Helm’s many winning turns of phrase.

Informed by the all-knowing narrator that his death is imminent, Crick recruits expert help in Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), a literature professor who helps him think critically about his predicament. Most fundamentally: Is his story a comedy, or a tragedy? Ever the dutiful accountant, Crick keeps a running tally.

Finally, Crick identifies the voice: Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a reclusive best-selling author with a wicked case of writer’s block who can’t figure out how to kill off her protagonist, i.e. Harold Crick.

No, it doesn’t make a lick of sense, and that’s where Helm and director Marc Forster — a versatile filmmaker whose credits include “Monster’s Ball” and “Finding Neverland” — possibly underestimate our need for rational explanation. Even in his weirdest, most reflexive moments, Kaufman always avoided the bane of broken logic.

Ultimately, “Stranger Than Fiction” asks the question: Is it better to be entertained, or challenged? If a story fulfills its audiences’ expectations for a happy ending, does that make said story less “important”? Valid questions all, but there’s never any suspense about “Stranger Than Fiction.”

It’s a movie built around freshlybaked cookies and acoustic guitar serenades and other “Amelie”-style inbetweens that mark it as something to be enjoyed, briefly contemplated and tossed aside.

Escapism is dead, long live escapism.


‘Stranger Than Fiction’

Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson Rated PG-13, 113 minutes


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