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Marc Forster is one of those directors that over that past years have been on my film radar. After a strong debut, (I know he had a couple previous, but lets go with it), with Monster’s Ball and a great follow-up of Finding Neverland, he really wowed me last year with the visual flair and emotion of Stay. This year sees the release of Stranger Than Fiction written by Zach Helm, whom people are hailing as one of the best new screenwriters, interesting since this is his first script made into a Hollywood feature. There were definite reservations on my part having the lead be cast to Will Ferrell, but I decided to go with my inclination to Forster movies and hope that we get Melinda and Melinda Ferrell, not watch me be an ass Ferrell. Thankfully Will gives possibly his greatest performance yet and really helps drive this intelligent, poignant allegory into a strong feature and a continuance to Forster’s streak of winners.

Many things could have gone wrong with Stranger Than Fiction. Ferrell could have pulled a Jim Carrey and highjacked the tale, it could have turned into slapstick comedy, or also could have become an It’s Wonderful Life ripoff of sentimentality as all involved discovered an inner love and exuberance for doing good. Credit Helm and Forster for sticking to their guns and creating a true existential parable, showing how we are in control of our actions and we make choices in our lives either for worse or better. If you woke up tomorrow hearing a narration of your mundane activities, you have the ability to dismiss it as craziness, disregard it all together and except your fate, or wake up and decide to do something about it. Fate doesn’t dictate your willingness to survive and that is exactly what Harold Crick wants to do. No matter how worthless his existence has been, all it takes is one wakeup call to turn it around and make something meaningful happen, to take a chance rather than cowardly take the easy way out.

Yes the film has many laugh-out-loud moments, however, it is mostly a nuanced and subtle film. It takes itself very seriously and most of the laughs hit big because of the deadpan delivery and gravity of the situation at hand. These characters don’t necessarily make light of the circumstances as much as go along with skepticism and a dash of possibility. Every instance is orchestrated to perfection and besides bringing up early on that a certain Wednesday event held the key to Crick’s demise, days before our author even began to know how to go about killing him, complete without any real plotholes. Helm took his time with this tale of the meaning of life, (great reference to this by having Monty Python’s movie of same name on screen briefly), and made every detail work throughout the evolution of a nobody into a literary hero.

Besides Ferrell’s revelation in acting ability, we are treated to numerous standout performances. The always wonderful Maggie Gyllenhaal shows how skilled she is in playing a bitter idealist while deftly balancing a budding interest in that she is against. Dustin Hoffman does spot-on work as an eccentric literary historian trying to help Crick, more out of educational curiosity than human compassion; a nice companion to his performance in the other recent great existential tale I Heart Huckabees. Emma Thompson steals the show, however, with her broken reclusive writer, so enthralled in finding ways to kill her characters she can’t have a real connection with that of living people. The need she has to correspond with Hoffman’s character, but her inability to do so as it might cloud her ability to write profound dark tales, is portrayed beautifully. Every emotion she goes through during her discovery about the novel is great to watch.

Every minute of Stranger Than Fiction is measured and calculated to the utmost degree. Much like the film’s fetish for numbers, (I loved the computer grids and diagrams superimposed throughout), Helm’s script is a formula being solved. Every equation has one answer to even out both sides and while this film is no different, the filmmakers took a bit of liberty with its ultimate conclusion. The way it was going was perfect, the characters reactions to what was about to happen magnificent, and then the story took one last turn. While at first unfortunate, the final twist of the tale was redeemed by a profound statement from Thompson’s Karen Eiffel, so true to form and relevant to the proceedings that I agree with her: I’m ok with just good. Just because the answer wasn’t quite correct doesn’t mean they can’t get partial credit for the great work they did in the process.

Stranger Than Fiction 9/10

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