THE QUICK HIT: Dull, boring, bored IRS auditor Harold Crick wakes up one morning with a narrator in his head, remarking on his every thought and action. The narrator is none other than Kay Eiffel, an eccentric and reclusive writer trying to finish up a novel after ten years of writer’s block. Her protagonist? Harold Crick.

THE BIG PICTURE: Although not always known for good taste in film choices, Will Ferrell has been waiting for a role like this one. It’s not that as Harold he has to skip the humor that comes so naturally to him, but he gets to have a soul—a poet’s soul. The plot is of course absurd, but as with the absurdist humor of Groundhog Day, some real gems of truth are uncovered as the doomsday narration forces Crick out of his staid boundaries and into unknown territory romancing a feisty tax-evading baker (a delightful Maggie Gyllenhaal).

Visually the film hints at its own magic early on when the numbers-obsessed Harold’s world is shown to us with his every mental calculation overlaid onscreen as clean white geometric lines and projections. He is busy counting minutes, counting toothbrush strokes, footsteps. He is fascinating in his absolute dullness. Meanwhile author Eiffel (Emma Thompson) exhibits every stereotype of the temperamental author: a disheveled, neurotic, demanding chain smoker. Her own magic is how she imagines different fates for Crick, each scene playing out for us as the audience, toying with our sense of both plot and reality even further. All-too predictable sass is provided by the underutilized Queen Latifah as Penny, an author’s assistant sent by the publisher to coax Eiffel to complete her overdue manuscript. Dustin Hoffman plays an unlikely ally for Harold—a hip, rumpled university literature professor who is trying to determine Harold’s ailment by carefully analyzing the plot of his life: “Is this a comedy or a tragedy?”

The cameos are almost as fun as the main action, with Linda Hunt and Tom Hulce gamely playing mental-health experts who cannot help Harold in the least. And just like they taught you in Literature 101, a main character who undergoes substantial change is somehow very satisfying. Top-notch screenplay and acting, lovely restrained execution by director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland), and a pleasure to watch.

TECHNICAL MUMBO-JUMBO: A 40-million-dollar budget didn’t buy Stranger Than Fiction anything too fancy as tech effects go. But 40-million does get you one apartment building semi-demolished by wrecking ball, and the services of Hoffman, Thompson, Gyllenhaal, and Ferrell.

Grade: B

DIRECTOR: Marc Forster
CAST: Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Queen Latifah

Review by Sha Harrison