A Novel Idea

Stranger than Fiction. Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Dustin Hoffman star in a film written by Zach Helm and directed by Marc Forster.

Reviewed by Molly Freedenberg

Will Ferrell proves his acting chops in this surprising, sweet, and smart film about a man who discovers he’s the main character in a writer’s novel — and the writer plans to kill his character. Sound Kaufman-esque? It is, sort of. But Stranger than Fiction isn’t quite as dark and cerebral as Adaptation. Instead, it’s charming and endearing, which suits it just fine.

Treated differently, the movie could’ve seemed silly or goofy, and the choice of Ferrell as the lead would seem to suggest that’s where it would go. But impeccable casting combined with a good script make this film subtly funny but not too serious.

Emma Thompson is fantastic as Kay Eiffel, the tortured, morbid novelist with writer’s block who narrates Harold Crick’s (Ferrell) life. Dustin Hoffmann is even better as Jules Hilbert, the quirky literary professor who agrees to help Crick find out who’s writing his story. Queen Latifah, as Penny Escher, is a convincing assistant to Eiffel, though her character (by no fault of her own) feels more like a plot device than a necessary part of the story. And Maggie Gyllenhaal is downright irresistible as Ana Pascal, Crick’s love interest. Even the bit part of Crick’s friend from work, Dave, is perfectly cast with Tony Hale, who played the fantastically funny Buster on Arrested Development.

With these acting heavyweights and inventive cinematography, though, the film could’ve gone to another level. It almost feels as though the story could’ve used another edit — one which fleshes out Escher’s character, for example, or further explores how and why Pascal would actually fall for Crick. It’s also notable that the film never really addresses the issue of how a real person ends up being a character in a novel in the first place.

But none of these shortcomings ruin the movie. On the contrary, it’s a solidly good film that engages the viewer on emotional, intellectual, and visual levels. It’s a far cry (thankfully) from Bewitched and Talladega Nights and makes me look forward to what Ferrell will come up with next.

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