- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 9, 2006

Will Ferrell is a funny man.

In fact, he might be too funny.

Moviegoers at a preview of the actor’s latest film, “Stranger Than Fiction,” couldn’t stop laughing at Mr. Ferrell — even as his character, Harold Crick, faced a poignant fate.

Harold’s a quiet man, with no interests beyond an obsession with numbers. He’s an Internal Revenue Service agent with no friends besides a fellow auditor.

“Harold lived a life of solitude,” we hear from an unseen narrator.

The problem is, Harold begins to hear her, too.

He’s not too concerned — until the voice mentions his “imminent death.”

A freaked-out Harold visits a shrink (Linda Hunt in a perfect deadpan cameo) and explains his problem. Someone is describing the events of his life: “Accurately. And with a better vocabulary.”

“What you’re describing is schizophrenia,” the psych tells him.

Harold avoids being committed and instead is referred to literature professor Jules Hilbert (a blase Dustin Hoffman). Jules tries to figure out what book Harold might be in. “Do you feel an urge to solve murder mysteries at luxurious houses to which you’ve been invited?” he asks, wondering if it’s an Agatha Christie novel.

When Harold sees author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) interviewed on television, he recognizes the voice and embarks on a quest to change his story — both real and written.

Mr. Ferrell proves here that he can do a lot more than play parodies. Audiences may laugh at Harold’s distress, but Mr. Ferrell plays it straight. He brings a surprising amount of pathos to the IRS agent who only starts learning to live when he learns he’s about to die.

A scene-stealing Maggie Gyllenhaal (“Secretary”) is his love interest, a baker named Ana whom he’s auditing. The two don’t hit it off at first: “Get bent!” she yells at the taxman, encouraged by a cafe full of IRS haters, in her hilarious first scene. However, Harold’s relationship with Ana, he realizes, will determine whether his story is a comedy or tragedy.

Miss Thompson should fire her makeup artist and costumer. They have done the elegant actress no favors. Even before she appears, though, her voice is used to delightful effect. Her upper-class English accent sounds just like an omniscient author might sound.

Tom Hulce (“Amadeus”) is almost unrecognizable in his first film role in a decade in a small but funny part as a New Age human-resources director. Queen Latifah is solid as an assistant hired by Karen’s publisher to push her past her writer’s block — and help her figure out how to kill off Harold.

The script from first-time writer Zach Helm isn’t as groundbreaking as it thinks it is. As early as 1957, Scottish novelist Muriel Spark, who died earlier this year, was writing in “The Comforters” about a woman who hears the typing of the novelist who has created her. Here, the narrator inexplicably disappears during Harold’s most important scenes with Ana.

Still, “Stranger Than Fiction” is a funny film with some clever writing worthy of being called literature. Director Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland”) offers plenty of visual interest and uses Chicago to full effect. The soundtrack is hip but not overwhelmingly so.

Ultimately, “Stranger Than Fiction” is an unconventional story about the narrative conventions of our own lives. @Ifyougo:***

TITLE: “Stranger Than Fiction”

RATING: PG-13 (Some disturbing images, sexuality, brief language and nudity)

CREDITS: Directed by Marc Forster. Written by Zach Helm.

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

WEB SITE: www.sony pictures.com/movies/stranger thanfiction/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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