A set-in-his ways IRS agent (Ferrell) hears a woman’s voice narrating his every move and quickly surmises that he’s not crazy–he’s a character in developing work of fiction. His fate is in the hands of a chain-smoking author (Thompson) with a debilitating case of writer’s block and a habit of killing off her main characters.
Or is it?
This is the wonderful jumping off point that begins the literary fantasy Stranger Than Fiction, the cinematic equivalent of reading a great book that leaves you with a lot to discuss afterward. Ferrell hits all the right notes as Harold Crick, a number-cruncher who’s forced to take an accounting of his own life after a bizarre series of events throws his ordered life out of whack. He seeks help from Dustin Hoffman, terrific as a coffee-swilling professor of literary theory. Every one of their scenes together is a gem.
Emma Thompson is just this side of eccentric as Karen Eiffel, the reclusive author struggling with how best to kill off Crick. She’s holed up (or is she committed?) in the starkest writer’s room I’ve ever seen, all white walls and gauzy windows. Unfortunately for Queen Latifah, her role as the writer’s assistant is simply there to provide Eiffel with someone to talk to other than herself, saving the character from appearing completely unhinged. Maggie Gyllenhaal is charming as the love interest, a spirited baker whom Harold is auditing.
The urban surroundings in Stranger Than Fiction play an important role in setting the tone, so it’s appropriate that the film was shot entirely here in Chicago, a city renowned for its architecture. Time and again, director Marc Forster uses post-modern concrete and windows as a backdrop to the story. The city in the film is never named, so iconic landmarks aren’t used–the closest we get is the Tribune Tower out a window and a River City apartment. For Chicagoans it’s fun to see how the city is featured. [****1/2 out of 5]