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When I saw Being John Malkovich in 1999, I was almost startled with pleasure. Its arresting vision and seamless execution made it absolutely unlike any film I had seen previously. I would never see another film of its ilk, I presumed. Then in 2002, I saw Adaptation and, two years after that, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, both dizzyingly delightful. All three were written by Charlie Kaufman, and so, I assumed, I would never see another film of such delicious inventiveness not written by Charlie Kaufman. My capacity for faulty assumptions is apparently endless. For now I have seen Stranger Than Fiction, a picture that belongs with the works of Charlie Kaufman, only he didn't write it.

Directed by Marc Forster, who previously made Monster's Ball and Neverland, Stranger Than Fiction is the first feature written by Zach Helm. Let's hope Helm goes on to produce subsequent Kaufman-like work because this one is a gem. The picture intercuts two related stories. Acclaimed novelist Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is struggling with her latest book about a lonely man surprised by an opportunity for love. Karen knows the general direction of her story, but she's stumped for the details and spends endless hours doing the kind of research almost no one but a writer can understand. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the same bustling, unnamed American city, internal revenue agent Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) goes about his daily routine in an almost robotic way. He brushes his teeth the same number of strokes each morning and night, takes the same number of steps from his apartment to his bus stop, catches the same tram to work at the same time every day. Harold's life is as controlled and as rigid as a mathematical equation. He's both as fulfilled and as empty as a robot because he seems to exist without self-consciousness. He does what he does because he's supposed to do it, and he questions neither the reasons for his actions nor his sense of obligation to perform them. Then he begins to hear the voice.

The voice he suddenly begins to hear is that of Eiffel. For Harold is the main character in her book. Karen's voice doesn't tell Harold what to do; she only describes what he's already doing. As we might expect, Harold finds the voice perturbing, but he's such a mild-mannered fellow he's not made as crazy as this development would make most of us. He rejects the notions of a shrink (Linda Hunt) that he's schizophrenic and seeks out the consultations of literature professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), an expert on contemporary narrative. The sly joke here turns around the notion that an English professor might be able to help a real person with much of anything. Through a process of elimination, educated guess and blind luck, Jules finally assists Harold in determining that Karen is the author of Harold's life, and worse, that he's the main character in a tragedy which ends with his death.

The Harold we meet at the beginning of the movie, dutiful as he is, might have been better able to handle the inevitability of an early death. But while we've known him, his life has changed in a critical way. He's met Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) a beautiful and feisty baker, and through the endearments of warm cookies they have fallen in love. Harold has something -- someone -- to live for. So Harold endeavors to meet Karen to plead for a different fate than the one she's planned for him all along.

The concept here is not as bizarre as that of Being John Malkovic, and the narrative isn't as complicated as that of Eternal Sunshine, but Stranger Than Fiction has a profound and affecting gentleness of spirit that none of Kaufman's films have offered. In part this is the direct result of Ferrell's controlled performance as a modest man awakening to a richness of living he has previously not even suspected possible.

Stranger Than Fiction has its quirks. Queen Latifah's intermittent appearance as a publisher's representative assigned the job of getting Karen to finish her book seems an idea abandoned before fully fleshed out. We certainly take note that Jules is a coffee addict, but we have no idea why that's important. And though we can presume that Harold's magical wrist watch is a symbol about the power of time, the metaphor doesn't quite hold together. But these are minor glitches in a picture that dares to ask probing questions about art and the obligations of the artist. Should the artist be as merciful with her creations as those of us who believe pray that the divine may be with us? But mostly, in its whimsically inside-out way, Stranger Than Fiction celebrates the joys of living that we so often undervalue: the pride of learning to play a musical instrument, the exquisite taste of a fresh pastry, the comfort of a lover's embrace.

In Stranger Than Fiction, the plot thickens when - Harold (Will Ferrell) meets Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal). - RALPH NELSON
  • Ralph Nelson
  • In Stranger Than Fiction, the plot thickens when Harold (Will Ferrell) meets Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

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