Will she kill him off, or won't she?
“Stranger Than Fiction” sends you out with a smile. It uses a whole series of small details to build to a big, warm, appealing whole. A surefire script by Zach Helm cried out for, and was given, a cast that understood the characters. When you put perceptive actors into an imaginative plot, chances are they’ll build a winner. It’s neither a big movie nor a great one, but it’s a total immersion one, and who among us isn’t looking for that these days?
We care quickly about everyone here, no need for a get-to-know-them process. They are likable on sight. Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, the main character in both the movie and the unfinished novel being written by famous author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson). He doesn’t know he is a character in Eiffel’s book until her voice begins playing in his head, an interior narration of every move he makes. He has become a character in his own life. The problem comes, of course, when the author nears the close of the book. Will she kill him off, or won’t she? Will he find her in time to plead for his life? It’s a great comedic premise in a time when such things are sparse.
Harold has brushed his 32 teeth horizontally and vertically with the same number of strokes for twelve years. He walks 57 steps per block to the bus stop each day. He examines 7.134 files each day and observes lunch and coffee breaks that are timed perfectly by the faithful wristwatch he puts on the nightstand to rest each night. He lives alone, he eats alone, and he sees everything in terms of numbers. He is an IRS agent.
When Eiffel, the narrator, stops cold in her commentary on his life, we know she has writer’s block and Harold becomes terrified that she may decide to kill him off, a suspicion he has garnered from information given him by a professor of literature, Jules Hilbert who is a fan of author Eiffel. Dustin Hoffman adds yet another rich character as the eccentric professor.
In a charming – no other word will do – moment, Harold meets Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who became a baker after she found she spent her studying time at Harvard Law School baking cookies for other students. Gyllenhall is a smile-making mix of moxie and tenderness (watch her force him to violate his nature by dunking a cookie).
Will Ferrell resists the obvious temptation to overact the man governed by inner numbers. He never once slips into the trap of mugging for emphasis, never once gives the impression that precision has made him prissy. It is a lovely performance, and it plays well against Emma Thompson’s edgy, awkward writer who is trying to resolve both her book and the life of our hero whose fate is in her hands. In a terrific final monologue she explains – while barely drawing a breath - her momentous decision.
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