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Frat Pack Tribute Movie Review: Stranger than Fiction

Review by Andrew Hunt and Kevin Crossman

This is a film about Harold Crick. A whiz with numbers and very polite, Harold is a man of little stress. However, he does not excel at life. This is a film about Harold Crick getting better at life by facing death.

Harold is almost inhuman in the way he handles his day-to-day. He's more or less mean when confronting a small bakery owner named Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) about a tax audit. And it isn't until he realizes he's the on the verge of death that he turns his world upside down. Seeking the the help of literary professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), and following the words of his narrator, recluse author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) he sets forth on a sort of spiritual mission: to live the life he knows he's losing.

Scrupulously respecting the film's premise, Ferrell buries his normally broad ethos for a straight-laced performance that truly pleases. As Harold Crick, we can actually watch Ferrell work, as opposed to waiting for his next joke: his skills as an actor are tangible. Ferrell's performance is especially effective during the film's third act, when Crick is faced with a dilemma. Here, Ferrell's performance seems natural, touching, and inspirational.

Picture Ferrell brushing his teeth while a female voice describes every small detail of his activity. Imagine his reaction, like anybody else's, staring at the silent brush and asking aloud "Who just said 'Harold counted brush strokes?'" It's the set-up for a farce, the kind Ferrell has brilliantly built his reputation on for the past four years. But the farce doesn't come. Rather than strip down to his underwear and beg Tom Cruise for salvation, he approaches the situation in the same numb fashion Harold brushes his teeth in. It isn't until the voice ominously predicts his imminent death that Harold breaks down, and we see Ferrell shine in the way were used to: screaming at the top of his lungs.

But still, the zany off-the-wall antics we have come to expect never arrive. Instead, director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland), following the delightfully absurd script by Zach Helm, constructs a carefully contrived fable. Even the animations of Harold's mental imagery (similar to A Beautiful Mind, but funnier) only bring smiles, not laughs. Still, the film has a quality that makes viewers feel good inside for two acts, and then fills them with worry as the film moves to it's conclusion.

The rest of the cast is equally as enjoyable. Gyllenhaal is infectious as the pseudo-anarchist bakery owner, and proves to be the perfect match for Harold, despite being glaringly different in almost every way. A scene in which Ana teaches Harold the joy of milk and cookies is a gem, and perfectly ruined by Harold's ineptitude for flirtation. Later, Gyllenhaal works well with Ferrell when he serenades here and starts the year's most unlikely love scene. Dustin Hoffman has a prophetic-like performance as Professor Hilbert, and also provides a miniscule Frat Pack connection that should make Ferrell and Pack vets smile, while Emma Thompson is deliciously self-deprecating even if her subplot doesn't always work quite as well as Harold's.

Thought not without its flaws, Stranger Than Fiction is a well-made and smart film that a wide spectrum of viewers are sure to be taken with. The implausible conundrum of a person's life being written as he lives it is handled with a realistic tone. Forster, a director with a gift for negotiating quicksilver changes of mood, faces the same challenge Harold does: turning the story from a tragedy to a comedy. Luckily for Forster, he comes up a winner, with just the right actors to make magic happen.

****