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A novel approach

By Mark Mitchell

“Stranger Than Fiction” Sony Pictures Directed by Marc Forster Written by Zach HelmStarring: Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman and Queen Latifah Rated PG-13/113 minutes Opens Nov. 10, 2006 Three out of four stars

A fellow film student once advanced to me the theory that all modern directors, even the most acclaimed, suffer from what he referred to as “Spielberg Sickness.” They may be fairly visionary and instinctually natural filmmakers, but they all are waging a battle against their inner hack.

But where Steven Spielberg is occasionally losing to the hack’s attacks of maudlinism and sentimentality-see the end of “Minority Report” or every eye-bleeding frame of “The Terminal”-most have long ago ceded the battle.

What, then, to make of director Marc Forster? His films have been either saccharine bits that, albeit enjoyable, require insulin after viewing (“Finding Neverland”); ham-fisted, though well-meaning, race films (“Monster’s Ball”); dreadful thrillers (“Stay”) or frightening mixtures of all three (“Everything Put Together”).

Forster’s latest, “Stranger Than Fiction,” finds him walking the line of fire between hack and hero, yet again, only this time, with more tolerable results.

Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is an IRS auditor who begins hearing a voiceover narration in his head covering every aspect of his daily life, from the number of strokes he uses to brush his teeth to the way he places his watch on the nightstand before sleep. He panics when he realizes that the voice belongs to an eccentric, reclusive novelist (Emma Thompson) whose trademark is killing off her protagonists: He worries he’s next.

We fear in the beginning that Ferrell will resort, yet again, to just general mugging for the camera in lieu of building any semblance of actual character. Whenever Harold is on screen in these early moments, grocery and to-do lists suddenly grow longer.

But something strange happens as the film wears on: He actually, dare I say it, begins to act. Those anticipating the patented Will Ferrell tomfoolery will no doubt be disappointed. The rest of us can breathe a sigh of relief.

The film’s tone swings violently from one extreme to another. This balance between comedy and tragedy is a defining theme of the film. But unlike other explorations of life’s dichotomy, such as Woody Allen’s forgettable “Melinda and Melinda” (also starring Ferrell), and despite a few dangerous missteps of its own, “Stranger Than Fiction” manages to generally pull it off. I was expecting to find the film funny; I had not anticipated that it would be touching.

Stories constructed in this fashion inevitably box themselves into a corner, and it takes great creative dexterity to aptly resolve them. I’m not sure the solution presented here is entirely satisfactory; some will undoubtedly feel cheated, others will accept it. But either way, the upshot does provide something to chew on afterward.

When Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation” came out, I heard people talking about it in terms that were supposed to be glowing, but which sounded pretty damning to me: “It really plays with narrative,” they’d say blankly. “Stranger Than Fiction” sounds like Forster’s entry into the meta-realm of Kaufman, but it is more akin to a thinking man’s “Click.”

But that’s not to slight the film with faint praise. Nothing in “Stranger Than Fiction” is cookie cutter or formula-driven. It’s predictable in short spans, but not in an overall sense. It’s more intelligent than what we usually get from the studios. The visuals may be playful, but the emotions are not.

“Oh my God-I’m?acting. Acting. ACTING!” Will Ferrell discovers that he has talent in “Stranger Than Fiction.”

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