Will Ferrell gets serious in a Möbius strip of a movie. 

As his name suggests, Harold Crick is a habitual bore. It's the perfect name for an IRS auditor, which, in fact, is what Harold is. One morning, while brushing his teeth a precise number of times, Harold hears a voice -- a narrator. Inexplicably, someone seems to be narrating Harold's life, remarking on his routines and foreshadowing small events that come true moments later. When Harold (Will Ferrell) meets beautiful and edgy Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal), his impulsive fantasies about her have hardly been thought when the narrator, author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), utters them prosaically. When Harold decides the narrative effect is that of a fictional story, he seeks advice from an expert: a literary-theory professor (Dustin Hoffman).

Ferrell is possibly the only actor to ever have chemistry with himself. But in Stranger Than Fiction, he turns it off and shares the screen with the ensemble cast. Gone are Ferrell's surface obnoxiousness and the self-deprecation below his burlesque. He drops both masks, exposing fear of failure in his fearlessness. Ana is a tattooed, "food not bombs" kind of gal who, in providing a romantic interest for Harold, satisfies the literary convention of opposites attracting. As has happened before, the twinkle in Gyllenhaal's eyes lights up an entire film. And it's been years since Hoffman acted such that you forget it's him on screen. Here he pulls off the trick effortlessly, plucking scenes from a willing Ferrell with his craft rather than his persona.

With Stranger Than Fiction, director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland) once again impresses. It's his most showy outing to date. In making visual the mechanics of his protagonist's mind as it interacts with the world, the director appropriates graphic-novel sensibilities, utilizing image and text, sometimes even in juxtaposed frames, to describe his character. (His inside-the-mouth shot of Harold's teeth-brushing exercise seems cribbed from illustrator Eduardo Risso.)

Forster also has a talent for making otherwise mundane scenes stimulating. One such scene has Harold and Ana making small talk on an "articulated" bus, one of those extra-long vehicles that have an accordion middle for taking turns; as the pair talk, the camera glides and angles in tandem with the cornering bus. It's a simple technique employed without fanfare, but it heightens the tension of the chance encounter between the mild antagonists as they parry for common ground.

But Forster's clever eye works against the film too. Harold's home décor is bland and featureless; Kay's surroundings are equally stark and sterile. It's a nice counterpoint to the fireworks of Kay's mind, but compared to Harold's home style, the visual echo suggests deeper, more cosmic connections between the two that the film isn't willing to explore. Fear of taking the film a final step limits Stranger Than Fiction to being very good instead of great. It's a little autumn whirlwind littered with fragments of lunacy, literature, romance, pop culture, fate and fatalism, authorial guilt, and mortality. It's a Möbius strip of classic storytelling: The tragic moments are comedic, and the comedic moments are tragic.

Stranger Than Fiction

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