a critiQal film review Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

Plot: Harold Crick (Ferrell), an IRS agent leading a very mundane existence, has his life changed forever when he begins hearing a mysterious voice narrating his life. With the help of Professor Hilbert (Hoffman), Harold discovers he's the main character of a novel-in-progress and that the voice belongs to Karen Eiffel (Thompson), an author famous for killing her main characters.

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After seeing Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006), I didn’t really think I could stomach another Will Ferrell comedy in the same year. And then I saw a preview for Stranger Than Fiction, and was interested despite myself. Will Ferrell’s character is actually a character in a book that ends with his death – and he can hear the narrator? That looked incredibly promising.

Still, I knew Will Ferrell would probably screw it up somehow, so I was glad to see Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah and Emma Thompson were there to help out. But would even they be able to help Will Ferrell achieve the impossible – to actually make Stranger Than Fiction the first good Will Ferrell movie?

In his usual roles, Will Ferrell usually plays a goofy dork, who overreacts to every little thing by doing something incredibly ridiculous – supposedly for the laughs. Unfortunately, it’s usually just stupid and not really very funny at all.

In Stranger Than Fiction, Will tones it down a little bit – and really shines. Sure, he still uses his overacting, but it’s at more appropriate times – such as when the narrator states that his character, Harold Crick, faces imminent death. Then he goes a little nuts – but it’s totally understandable.

For most of Stranger Than Fiction, however, he plays Harold – a meek IRS agent – with perfection. He’s just a man in a rut in the beginning of the film, and he literally plods his way through his day – but Will is able to showcase that this guy, although he may be in a rut, doesn’t even really think about escaping from his mundane life. His best friend is his watch, and that’s okay with him. When he starts to break out of that rut, he’s nervous and disjointed, and takes baby steps into a new life, tentatively testing each and every move he makes before committing to it.

Another stand-out in Stranger Than Fiction was Harold’s love interest Ana, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. While she has been overlooked by most – thanks to her brother Jake – she’s become quite an actor in her own right, and turns out to work very well with Will Ferrell. If Will stays on this path to becoming an actual actor, rather than just an unfunny jokester, another pairing with Maggie Gyllenhaal should be in his future.

But Maggie Gyllenhaal isn’t the only stand-out in the supporting cast of Stranger Than Fiction. Dustin Hoffman is rather subdued as a literary professor Will’s character turns to for help, but his understated father-figure role helps provide Will with insight (and possibly some acting lessons for Will at the same time). Emma Thompson as a rather morbid author, does a great job of walking the viewers through her mindset as she tries to figure out how Harold Crick will die – and then her dilemma when she finds out he actually exists.

Queen Latifah, however, is ill-used, and doesn’t help provide anything more than a sounding board for Emma Thompson’s character to talk to.

Despite the surprisingly good acting by Will and the support of the rest of the cast, the best feature of Stranger Than Fiction is its exceptional plot. With the main character hearing a narrator, it throws out the window most normal moviegoer expectations. After all, viewers have heard narrators hundreds of times in films before – but this is the first where the main character hears it – and has no idea what’s going on. It’s a great set-up, and provides a hook for the viewers that will keep them involved right from the start.

Stranger Than Fiction provides the first role for Will Ferrell to focus more on Will’s acting than his antics, and Will manages to prove, after all these years, he’s not just the normal idiot he plays in his films. It’s great supporting cast and intriguing storyline only add to the film, and make Stranger Than Fiction more enjoyable right up until the end, when the film falters a bit – but not much.

With all of these things going for it, this film is the first Will Ferrell movie that I am looking forward to seeing again – and one that makes me look forward to the next Will Ferrell performance.

Unfortunately, he looks to be falling back into his old unfunny jokester routine, as Blades of Glory (2007) looks to be idiotic. Oh well, at least we have Stranger Than Fiction.

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