U.S. Release Date: November 10, 2006
Distributor: Sony / Columbia
Director: Marc Forster
Writer: Zach Helm
Composer: Brian Reitzell
Cast: Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, Emma Thompson
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (some disturbing images, sexuality, brief language and nudity)

'What If?' Movie Is Nonsense
by Scott Holleran

Stranger Than Fiction is an abstract blend of the saccharine and the absurd. Using Will Ferrell as the bland protagonist searching for meaning in his life, director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland) tries to make sense of the script but it ends up in la la land.

Ferrell's blank slate discovers he's a character in a novel created by a nihilistic writer (Emma Thompson, looking like she wandered away from the psych ward) who's about to exterminate him. As it's written, the fantasy is too wrapped up in itself to engage the imagination, as is required for this sort of thing to work.

Forster's sensitive style—framing an expression, a bold gesture, an embrace—has appeal. But having a lead character that may not be real triggers a tiresome game of What If? Knowing the characters may or may not exist makes it impossible to indulge these faint supposedly benign sketches on art coming to life and life as a work of art.

Ferrell's nondescript city dweller resides in a nondescript metropolis in a nondescript home. Hearing the narrator's voice—Miss Thompson's nasal tone grates—he gradually comes to believe that he's a fictional character wedged into reality somehow (don't ask, don't bother). By the way, he's an agent for the Internal Revenue Service.

When he's sent to audit an anarchist bakery owner (Maggie Gyllenhaal), barking that she "stole from the government," he falls in love in one of many predictable plot points. With stars in his blank eyes, a college literature professor (rambling Dustin Hoffman, perfectly cast) becomes the guru in his quest to stay alive before the writer, writing the novel in progress, kills him off.

Think of an overgrown Pinocchio on hallucinogenic drugs. He wants to be real, but then again, maybe he already is, and so it psychedelically goes. There is more, and less, to Stranger Than Fiction, usually at the same time and often for no apparent reason. In these interlaced fate and fantasy movies, logic is out the window.

After Ferrell dodges a wrecking ball, nearly knocking him into next Tuesday but waking the audience, his character/person decides to find and meet the author, food-stained and sloppy Miss Thompson, who compulsively annihilates her main characters. She's on deadline with Queen Latifah, there to make sure she meets it, and the co-mingling of fantasy and reality is intended to serve up a thrilling conclusion.

Stranger Than Fiction, which occasionally floats graphic numerals like a slick television commercial, is as exciting as folding laundry. Miss Thompson's narrative weaves in and out, with startling inconsistency, interrupting the romance, and the What If? construct finally overtakes real and wannabe characters in an oversimplified replay of the ancient idea that man's highest purpose is sacrifice. In the meantime, life's big payoffs include hugs, home-baked cookies and a glass of milk.

Ferrell, who warns someone that his story may sound like gibberish, is best taken at his word.

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