With literary aspirations, Fiction suffers from purple prose

Stranger Than Fiction

on November 10, 2006 by Kevin Courrier
In "Stranger Than Fiction," IRS agent Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is a buttoned-down bureaucrat who keeps his daily routine timed to the exact minute. One day, while carrying out his chores, he begins to hear a woman's voice in his head describing in vivid detail his every move -- including that his death is imminent. As it turns out, that voice belongs to Jane (Emma Thompson), a depressive novelist whose latest book features Harold as her main character. Suffering from writer's block, Jane struggles to find ways to finish him off, while Harold desperately tries to find the novelist before he's doomed.

Obviously inspired by the work of Charlie Kaufman ("Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation") and "The Truman Show," "Stranger Than Fiction" raises one's expectations for a wacky screwball farce. The screws, unfortunately, come loose instead. Director Marc Foster ("Monster's Ball," "Finding Neverland") lacks the necessary touch of lunacy for the genre and aims for poignancy instead. When he does, the picture becomes terribly maudlin.

Ferrell is strikingly funny railing at the omnipresent voice rattling his life. But once he becomes attracted to Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an anarchist baker he's been auditing, Ferrell becomes as gray as his suit. Gyllenhaal manages to bring a spry sweetness to the picture, though, despite the ridiculous role. (A free-spirited woman falling for a man who is auditing her? Now that's stranger than fiction!)

Dustin Hoffman shows up as a literary theorist who aids Harold in his quest, but it's merely a quirky hand-me-down from his puzzling existential detective in "I Heart Huckabees." Emma Thompson is perfectly cast as the gloomy scribe, but that's all she gets to be. And if the moviemakers can only offer Queen Latifah the thankless role of the writer's assistant, it's no wonder that "Stranger Than Fiction" makes for pretty tepid prose. Starring Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman and Queen Latifah. Directed by Marc Foster. Written by Zach Helm. Produced by Lindsay Doran. Comedy. A Sony release. Rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, sexuality, brief language and nudity. Running time: 113 min.

Tags: ill Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman and Queen Latifah. Directed by Marc Foster, Written by Zach Helm. Produced by Lindsay Doran, Sony, Comedy

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