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Rated 3.02 stars
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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Functions of Fiction
by Jeffrey Chen

Stranger than Fiction carries a premise I found so amusing that I wish I'd thought of it first. It's another one of those meta-movie deals, wherein the character finds out he's in someone's story, and the story dynamics get shifted and bumped around due to his and the audience's awareness of that fact. Here, Harold Crick, played by Will Ferrell, wakes up one morning to find a woman's voice narrating his actions in his head. She tells it as if it were a story, and he can't make the voice stop. After determining that the voice is eerily correct in being able to accurately describe both his thoughts and his actions, Harold is in for a shock when she proclaims that he would soon be on his way to his "imminent death."

That actually becomes the pivotal point of the plot --the movie lays aside the more obvious comedic notions of its high concept and becomes one of those "what if you only had a few days to live" stories. Harold is shown to be something of a stiff, an IRS agent who lives his life by his watch. This kind of candidate is the perfect sort to be loosened up, which he is by an encounter with a feisty and attractive young woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and through his consultations with a literary expert, Professor Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), who investigates a classic existential question: is Harold's life a comedy or a tragedy?

Director Marc Forster is continuing a string of movies (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland, Stay) which include the theme of death -- reactions to it, or the knowledge of its closing approach, so it should be no surprise that Stranger than Fiction's gimmick is just that, leading to the actual dramatic situation where a character confronts his mortality. Curiously, I think I might rather have seen more of the comedy potential featuring the frustrating voice; instead, the film eventually heads toward a carpe diem journey we've seen more than a few times in the movies.

But Stranger than Fiction has several things going for it, the most major one being a surprising, pathos-generating performance by Ferrell. Harold Crick could've been presented as a thickheaded pencil-neck or a drab drone, but instead he's given warm qualities and identifiable emotions. Despite the character's eccentricities, Ferrell gives him an everyman appeal, and he also doesn't fall back on the instinct to portray him as a man of stunted maturity. Harold actually seems decently well-adjusted, just somewhat defeated, and Ferrell doesn't play him to be mocked nor pitied. He even gives him a kind of working man's dignity, which makes him that much more easy to root for -- even though his death is "imminent," for the first time in a long time I really hoped a movie's main character wouldn't die.

A few other performances are worth noting, including Gyllenhaal, whom I hadn't seen with this much spunk before. Another one is the voice, which actually belongs to a contemporary author named Karen Eiffel, played by Emma Thompson. Thompson looks positively shriveled in the role of a woman with writer's block -- as it turns out, Harold Crick is the protagonist in her next fiction novel, and she hasn't figured out how to appropriately terminate him yet. Faced with a publisher's deadline, she becomes obsessed with being able to envision the ending, and Thompson makes her a chain-smoking nervous wreck who's quite unprepared to deal with the idea that, at least to a few real people, she might be playing God.

And this is where Stranger than Fiction is a little more interesting than either its gimmick or its facing-death plot. When looked at from the outside, it's an exploration of our need for structure and meaning. We assign literary flourishes to our lives as we search for poetic justice and happy endings; and with tragic endings, we look for profound irony. As Harold and Prof. Hilbert discover Harold's life is literally a book, neither embrace the option that life should be chaotic and uncharted; they look for a way out, but the way out is still limited by the bounds of what makes sense in the structure of a story. And the movie also addresses the generally accepted notion that happy endings are less meaningful than sad ones. Overall, it maps the relationship of fiction to our actual lives, and shows the two to be interdependent for the sake of our sanity.

(Released by Sony Pictures Entertainment and rated "PG-13" for disturbing images, sexuality, brief language and nudity.)

Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.

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