Stranger Than Fiction

strangerthanfictionlg.jpgGet on your dancing pants, kids, there is finally a movie worth the $12 of a pre-order ticket. Stranger Than Fiction is an understated movie with an original premise supported by an excellent script and performances of just the right size.

“Understated” isn’t a word anyone’s ever used to describe Will Ferrell. In a recent interview on Fresh Air, he characterized his usual roles as “men with unearned confidence.” As a 180-degree departure from that history, this movie is going to do for him what Lost in Translation did for Bill Murray, what 40-Year-Old Virgin did for Steve Carrell and what Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind almost did for Jim Carrey. This is a career-shifting movie and a joy to watch.

Harold Crick (Ferrell), an IRS agent with a highly routinized and largely empty life, begins hearing narration of his activities in his head. Emma Thompson plays the novelist with writer’s block who is unknowingly writing his life, Queen Latifah is the assistant hired by Thompson’s publisher to make sure she finishes the book, Dustin Hoffman – in a welcome departure from his recent scenery-chewing roles – plays the professor of literature Harold enlists to help him sort out what’s going to happen, and she of the rosebud mouth, Maggie Gyllenhaal, plays a baker and tax anarchist targeted by the IRS.

The most striking feature of the film is its simplicity. There are no unnecessary diversions into side plots. There are none of the winks and nods that have ruined other comedies with disbelief-suspending premises. The characters are all fully realized when we meet them. There are no explanations offered: everything you need to know is on the screen. I’d almost forgotten how lovely good editing and a script that gives the audience some credit can be.

Director Marc Forster guides the film quietly, following in the footsteps of Finding Neverland‘s gentle appeal, never overplaying the jokes or idiosyncrasies. There’s a touching moment when Will Farrell sings. The audience laughed, prepped by years of Marty Culp and Ron Burgundy’s jazz flute, but settled down as it became clear that Farrell was actually going to sing and it wasn’t meant to be funny.

The best way to cast stars is to leverage their history without relying on it. Unfortunately, to enjoy Tom Cruise in MI3, you have to have the springboard of Jerry McGuire to make him likeable and Mission Impossible to make him believable because MI3‘s not going to cover either of those bases. On the other hand, when we see Bill Murray shilling for Santorti whiskey, we remember him selling Swill – but Lost in Translation doesn’t need that knowledge to succeed. Shopgirl is a pleasant surprise for Steve Martin fans because it’s such a far cry from wild and crazy guys and from the schlock of Cheaper by the Dozen. We’re so pleased he had it in him. Likewise, Stranger Than Fiction is the realization of Ferrel’s potential as glimpsed in the slightly out of the groove Anchorman. He’s not parodying his past, he’s extending into the future and, like Harold’s epiphany that he should live a better life in the face of death at the hands of his narrator, we are warmed to see someone doing better, improving his seemingly inevitable fate.

David Edelstein called Murray’s Lost in Translation, “Saturday Night Live meets Chekhov.” Stranger Than Fiction is Lost in Translation meets Old School.

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