'Stranger Than Fiction'

Wry, measured comedy signals a departure for Ferrell

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IRS auditor Harold Crick is a man of few words and many numbers. Very precise numbers. He does four-digit multiplication and sees balanced geometric grids in his head. He also hears voices in his head. A very precise woman's voice, doing play-by-play coverage of everything he does. Harold's legitimate deduction: He is being followed by his own narrator.

Will Ferrell plays a precise IRS agent whose ordinary life takes an extraordinary turn in "Stranger Than Fiction."
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'Stranger Than Fiction'

Director: Marc Forster

Starring: Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson

Rating: PG-13 for sexuality, language and brief nudity

Web site: lwww.sonypictures.com

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That's the short form of "Stranger Than Fiction," a gently philosophical departure from the more raucous comedy usually associated with Will Ferrell. As Harold, he seems to be a figment of somebody else's imagination.

That would be mystery author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a chain-smoking neurotic suffering from Big Time Writer's Block. She has more issues than Time magazine but currently, after 10 years of working on Harold, is stuck for what to do with him -- specifically, how to kill him off. Imagine her added disturbance when he physically materializes at her office. Imagine his when informed he has to die.

And just when that shy, awkward bachelor was making some progress with adorable Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a tattooed cookie-maker whom he has caught withholding -- taxes as well as affection. His professional auditor-auditee ethics are severely tested by her sexy attitude and direct gaze.

Dustin Hoffman's professional skills are also tested. He's the eccentric literary criticism professor (and expert on the works of Karen Eiffel) to whom Harold appeals for help. Prof. Dustin concludes that this novel-in-impeded-progress is her masterpiece, and that Harold in good conscience shouldn't interfere with it.

"You've got to die anyway," he offers, "and your way wouldn't be as poetic or meaningful as hers."

Hoffman gets the best character role and bulk of the good lines, dispensing literary therapy in equal doses of wit and wisdom ("little did he know -- third-person omniscient"). The main question for him and Harold both: Is this a comedy or tragedy? "In tragedy, the character dies but the story lives forever," he says with a beatified smile.

Harold is less than comforted by that, or by the bulldozer that takes a bite out of his living-room wall, or by all the other things that are making his erstwhile organized life spin out of his control.

The inspirational message is more textbook than novel: You only go around once, in fact and/or fiction. This prompts the hero to take up guitar and sing a poignant song that doesn't quite do for Ferrell what "Moon River" did for Audrey Hepburn.

But never mind. Hoffman, Thompson and Gyllenhaal are all fun to watch and committed to their parts, though Queen Latifah is wasted as Thompson's long-suffering assistant. Director Marc Forster's strange, measured pace is a nice change from Will's trademark frenzy.

"Stranger Than Fiction" contains nothing gross, a few adjusted net gains, no penalties and some interest -- snack, not food, for thought. I generally chafe at paranormal story devices, but in this case I'm willing to make an exemption.

Post-Gazette film critic Barry Paris can be reached at parispg48@aol.com .


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