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STRANGER THAN FICTION (director: Marc Forster; screenwriter: Zach Helm; cinematographer: Roberto Schaefer; editor: Matt Chesse; music: Britt Daniel/Brian Reitzell; cast: Will Ferrell (Harold Crick), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Ana Pascal), Dustin Hoffman (Dr. Jules Hilbert), Queen Latifah (Penny Escher), Emma Thompson (Kay Eiffel), Linda Hunt (Dr. Mittag-Leffler), Tony Hale (Dave); Runtime: 113; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Lindsay Doran; Columbia Pictures; 2006)
“It’s the kind of middlebrow film that pretends it’s arty and thinks it’s so smart.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Middling dramedy using a literary device for its plot line is listlessly directed by the Swiss-born Marc Forster (“Monster Ball”/”Finding Neverland”) and penned by first-timer Zach Helm as if the story was layed on him by Charlie Kaufman. It has a diverting premise but after the long setup, it bogs down with a dull romance story, tepid comedy and the supposedly quirky characters reveal themselves as contrivances that manage only to become more grating than real. It’s the kind of middlebrow film that pretends it’s arty and thinks it’s so smart.

Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is an obsessive-compulsive IRS agent who leads an orderly but solitary life (shot somewhere in an unfamiliar Chicago). He’s guided by his trusty high-tech wristwatch to keep punctual, and only becomes disturbed when he hears the voice of famed Brit author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) as she dictates her story where he’s the main character. He doesn’t know it’s Kay until the third act, but he knows his character will be killed off and he wants to live. Harold’s idiosyncrasies are voiced in the disembodied narration, as we learn he counts each tooth he brushes and how many steps he takes to reach the bus stop.

The film goes whimsical (to its discredit it’s not even remotely real, but viewed only as an artificial construct–unlike a superior Kaufman screenplay that at least makes it seem realistic) and an upset Harold is almost not his usual robotic self as he audits heavily tattooed baker Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who refused to pay part of her taxes as a protest against government waste. The story cuts back and forth between Harold’s mundane life and to the reclusive chain-smoking author, who has writer’s block and can’t come up with a novel way to kill off Harold. The concerned publisher sends Penny Escher (Queen Latifah) to be her assistant and to spy on her in order to help her get through these difficult times. Also coming into the picture is smug literary professor Dr. Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), a great admirer of the writer he never met, who takes the place of the shrink (Linda Hunt) to treat Harold’s problem as a literary one rather than a psychological one (How cute was that!).

I found it to be hogwash. It was difficult to care about our boy Harold, who gets a life when he’s taken with Ana’s dizzy charming ways and titties (affirming that life is worth living, as most of the viewers I’m sure already knew. Now if you want to convince some hard nut cases, try those suicide-bombers). Ana, as one would expect, changes her opinion of the uptight sad-sack Harold when he compliments her and she offers him homemade cookies and her warm bed. Now Harold really doesn’t want to die and arranges to contact the author, but Hilbert read the manuscript and says it was a masterpiece and shouldn’t be changed. This is not pleasing to the mild-mannered Harold. But lucky for him the filmmakers are into happy endings and think they’re so clever coming up with their tagged-on sentimental ending, an unjustified ending that suddenly makes Harold a human being again instead of a character in a story. Just don’t try and think why anything happens here, as the idea is to be warm and fuzzy and give off the pretense that something big about life is being said.

When you have a cool actress like Maggie Gyllenhaal you can get away with a lot, but not even such a charmer could overcome such a dull and senseless script. As for Will Ferrell, mark this one off as his serious work where he thinks he’s really acting. He can now go back and do his wacky lowbrow blockbusters feeling he’s done his bit for serious movie making.

REVIEWED ON 11/16/2006 GRADE: C –

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”