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Final Gravity

'Stranger Than Fiction'
(Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, et al / DVD / PG-13 / (2006) 2007 / Columbia Pictures)

Overview: Karen Effiel is an author writing her latest novel about an isolated man named Harold Crick. What she doesn't know is that her fictionalized character is real. The real Harold Crick is an IRS agent who has lived a dull existence and one day begins to hear Karen's voice as she narrates what she puts on paper to what Harold has and is doing. Because of this Harold enlists the help of a literary professor to find out what is happening and ends up changing things about his life including beginning a relationship with his IRS client, a government-hating bakery owner named Ana Pascal. Harold, however, finds trouble when he hears that Karen plans to kill him.

DVD Verdict: Like many a successful comic before him, Will Ferrell goes for his own "Truman Show"-like bid at legitimacy with "Stranger Than Fiction," a high concept comedy/drama, written by Zach Helm and directed by Marc Foster, about a man who discovers that he's actually a fictional character in an author's yet unfinished novel.

Harold Crick is a straight-arrow, stuffed-shirt IRS agent who lives a life of highly regimented solitude completely cut off from any real social interaction with the people around him. One day he begins hearing the voice of an unidentified woman portentously intoning the details of each of his actions as he goes about the business of living out his daily life. As it turns out, the voice belongs to Kay Eiffel, a neurotic, reclusive novelist who is suffering from severe writer's block as she attempts to complete her latest work of literary fiction. Blissfully unaware that the character she has created has actually taken form as a flesh-and-blood human being, Eiffel plots ways to kill him off in the final scene. When Harold finally figures out what is happening to him, he seeks advice from a local English professor (Dustin Hoffman) who comes to believe Harold's bizarre predicament and tries to help him avoid his preordained fate before it's too late.

Highly reminiscent of such reality-bending movies as "Groundhog Day," "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" among others, "Stranger Than Fiction" earns points for pushing the envelope in terms of storytelling, but its themes - of a man finding meaning in his humdrum existence and of an author realizing that preserving real life is more important than preserving art - are so retrograde and shopworn at this late date that the movie comes across as far less cutting-edge and innovative than its post-modernist premise would lead one to expect. There are some very sharp and amusing moments in the film, but often we feel as if the movie's creators found themselves at a loss as to what to do with the clever idea once they came up with it. In short, "Stranger Than Fiction" feels more like an outline for a movie than a fully worked-out film in its own right.

Nevertheless, "Stranger Than Fiction" is worth seeing for the low-keyed performance by Farrell who never steps out of character as the socially backward but essentially warmhearted schnook Eiffel has invented for her printed page. The resplendent Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the tax-cheating ultra-liberal storeowner whom Harold is sent to audit and who opens his eyes to the possibility of true love for the first time in his "life." Their scenes together are genuinely well-played, touching and romantic. With her stiff-upper-lip British accent and crisp enunciation, Thompson is perfect as the frazzled narrator and author desperate to break through her writer's block and bring closure to her literary creation. Queen Latifah effectively underplays the role of the rational assistant sent to help Eiffel find a way to kill off her character, while Hoffman, in a wonderfully playful mood, gets to deliver most of the screenplay's funniest lines.

There's a great deal of poignancy in the final act as Eiffel has to decide between literally killing off her creation to preserve her work or letting her creation live even if that means spoiling a potential literary masterpiece. It is at this moment that Eiffel learns the true burden of being God - or at least the demi-god that artists automatically become through the nature of their work. It's a shame that the movie slouches along for so much of its running time on its way to the finale. This is a Widescreen Presentation (1.85:1) enhanced for 16x9 TVs and comes with the Special Features of:
Deleted Scenes
Funny On-Set Moments
Multiple Behind the Scenes Featurettes.