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Stranger than Fiction

Submits to the temptations of clichés and bathos
By PETER KEOUGH  |  November 10, 2006
2.5 2.5 Stars

What’s stranger than fiction? Some might say meta-fiction, the “avant-garde” genre that’s actually older than Don Quixote, in which a work of fiction self-consciously refers to its own artifice. A bit dry, perhaps, for a mainstream romantic comedy — which might be why director Marc Forster (Finding Wonderland) lards over his whimsically feeble film with sentimentality.

IRS auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) has his counting-toothbrush-strokes routine disrupted by a woman’s voice, British-accented, narrating his life with the overwrought prose of a best-selling novelist. And so she is: Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson embodying the writer as a chain-smoking twitchy hoyden) is a reclusive genius struggling through writer’s block to finish her latest work, Death and Taxes. Trouble is, she can’t figure out how to kill off her protagonist, Harold Crick, since in each of her books, as in life itself, the hero or heroine must die.

Neither Crick nor Eiffel is aware the other exists, and Harold tries to solve the mystery of the narrative voice by consulting a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman, dipping a little into his I ♥ Huckabees role and providing the film with some absurdist panache) who says things like, “Ah, dramatic irony. That’s the killer."

Indeed. Too bad Forster didn’t indulge in more of that irony instead of submitting to the temptations of clichés and bathos. Or narrative devices like love object Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a baker who gave up on Harvard Law School in order to “save the world with cookies.” But the director learned the hard way, through the critical and commercial pummeling of his previous film, Stay, not to be too ambitious. As for Ferrell, he’s going in the opposite direction, trying like Jim Carrey to act in more “serious” roles, and the result is that you wait for him to be funny and he never quite is. This is no Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Which given that film’s poor box office is probably good news for everyone involved except movie fans.

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