November 16, 2006

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Stranger Than Fiction (PG-13)
Will Ferrell masters the doughy Everyman in Stranger Than Fiction, a nicely subtle comedy with a sweet romantic side.

To some extent, many of Ferrell's characters are doughy Everymen. But Harold Crick, his character here, doesn't have any of the arrogance or the ego-expanding sycophancy of his characters in Talladega Nights or Anchorman. Crick is an IRS auditor who works in a maze of cubicles, lives in a beige house, has few friends and counts brush strokes while he brushes his teeth. This last fact is one of the first character traits commented on by Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), whose clipped, elegantly plain narration Harold suddenly hears. The voice, as he later tells a therapist, is not some schizophrenic raving but a woman narrating his actions accurately and with a better vocabulary. She describes the noise he hears when he files tax forms and talks about his attraction to auditee Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a baker who chooses not to pay the portion of her taxes that she believes goes to defense and other objectionable government programs. As strident as that might sound, Ana is not some shrill-voiced hippy but a soft-hearted girl who likes making cookies for people, even people auditing her.

Crick is filled with some very un-Crick like emotions when he is around Ana and she is the beginning of a small revolution in his life. After the narrating voice lets him know that "little did he know that events had been set in motion that would lead to his imminent death," Crick decides that the remainder of his life can not be beige. He buys the electric guitar he always wanted and, in one of the sweeter seduction scenes I've seen in movies for a long time, he tentatively woos Ana.

The better life becomes, however, the less willing Harold is to leave it. He seeks out the author who might be writing his story in attempt to prevent her from killing him off. Little does he know, his life has been prolonged by a serious bout of writer's block. Not only does Karen not know how to kill him but now she must deal with the pressure of a publicist-imposed assistant (Queen Latifah).

Stranger Than Fiction is beautifully scored by songs from the band Spoon. If you've ever heard this college radio band sing "The Way We Get By," you have a sense of the understated mood of this movie. The comedy doesn't have you guffawing, it's more of a relaxed giggle, something full of recognition and knowing nods. But all the same, Stranger Than Fiction is very funny. Both Ferrell and Thompson are exercising new muscles here and we're surprised by how strong they are. Thompson plays Karen as a woman who has lived entirely on cigarettes. Her hunched shoulders and weary look are that of a women who has had neither a good night's sleep nor a decent meal in years. Ferrell, meanwhile, looks as though he hasn't had a meaningful conversation or a close relationship, potentially, ever. Far from their usual images (costume-drama primness for Thompson and spazzy comedy for Ferrell), both actors perform like rock stars going acoustic and, thankfully, their skills are just as impressive (perhaps even more so) without all the accoutrements.

The cherry on top of the satisfying dessert is Gyllenhaal, who is here a sweetheart in every sense of the word. She is the perfect romantic complement to Ferrell. Underneath the elaborate tattoo on her arm and her anti "tax man" rant, she's all heart. Their scenes together are coo-worthy and yet never cloying.

Stranger Than Fiction, like the chocolate chip cookies it so charmingly builds a scene around, is rich and satisfying and leaves you with a warm glow. A-

Rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, brief language and nudity. Directed by Marc Forster and written by Zach Helm, Stranger Than Fiction is an hour and 53 minutes long and is distributed by Sony in wide release.

Amy Diaz