Last Thursday night, the Hamilton Movie House held a free preview of Will Ferrell’s latest film, Stranger than Fiction, in advance of its Friday opening in theaters everywhere. Handing out more passes than were necessary to fill the theater ensured a full-to-capacity showing, although many of the attendees may not have gotten what they bargained for when they first saw Ferrell’s name on the marquis. Stranger than Fiction is directed by Marc Forster, who most recently guided Halle Berry to an Oscar win in Monster’s Ball and mined more awards glory with Finding Neverland. So the question would undoubtedly be: can Will Ferrell be serious?
The verdict is a resounding yes. The film opens with a narration from Emma Thompson, who plays tortured author Kay Eiffel: “This is a story about a man named Harold Crick…and his wrist watch.” Harold, an IRS Agent, lives and dies by the watch, by the number, by the routine. Walking at a rate of 57 steps per block in the morning, he arrives at the bus stop just in time to board the 8:17a.m. bus as it speeds pass Euclid Avenue en route to Manhattan. He brushes each of his teeth 78 times-34 sideways and 34 up and down. “Until Wednesday, that is.”
One morning, Harold awakens to find Eiffel’s voice chronicling his every move, but only he can hear it. Quickly discovering himself to be the main character in someone else’s story, he is startled to hear on that Wednesday at the bus stop: “Little did he know, that one insignificant thing would lead to his impending death.” Harold consults a literature expert, a quirky university professor (played by Dustin Hoffman) who once taught an entire class on the phrase “Little did he know…” As they peruse the literary world in search of potential authors of Crick’s story, Kay Eiffel’s publisher begins to suspect she has writer’s block, assigning her assistant (played by Queen Latifah) to help her kill her protagonist. The race is on to stop Harold’s impending demise.
In the meantime, Crick beings auditing the owner of a Brooklyn bakery, Ana Pascal (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), a potential love interest. According to the nutty professor, if Harold can get Ana, who loathes the IRS, to fall in love with him, then perhaps he is not at the center of a tragedy after all.
As Eiffel pounds away on the typewriter in the center of a depressingly stark apartment and Harold drones along in his tragically Spartan lifestyle, one can’t help but think that perhaps their lives are meant to intersect.
While Latifah’s talent is completely wasted in her tiny role, the rest of the cast does a brilliant job populating Harold’s uniquely fantastic universe. Hoffman is wholly unlikable as a book-lover who would rather see a lonely man meet his untimely death than see his favorite author compromise her literary vision. Thompson is refreshingly dark after a series of turns in romantic comedies. Gyllenhaal is endlessly charming as a law-school dropout whose life beneath the surface might just be as tragic as Harold’s. Ferrell himself is utterly convincing as the most pitiable of archetypal loner mathematicians, completely shedding his over-the-top comedic tics, and Marc Forster pulls it all together with charming on-screen graphics chronicling Crick’s daily calculations. His film asks important questions: Is there such a thing as fate? Does it prescribe our every move? And can a character become so three-dimensional and alive that his creator can no longer control his actions?
In hopes of creating strong word-of-mouth for a role that audiences are not apt to accept Ferrell in, Columbia Pictures set up a series of previews like the one downtown. After its first weekend out of the gate, results are in and Ferrell helped make the film the strongest newcomer of the pack, with about 13 million dollars in receipts.