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.
R E V I E W
‘Stranger Than Fiction’
Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson Rated PG-13, 113 minutes