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Stranger Than Fiction

All the hype about screenwriter Zach Helm being the next Charlie Kauffman may be overblown, but there’s no denying that Stranger than Fiction is the most original and whimsical mainstream comedy so far this year.

From beginning to end, Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland)’s film engages you on every level. It’s smart, it’s funny and it’s touching, all without overworking its moments of real, dramatic weight.

Harold Crick (a remarkably restrained Will Ferrell) is a truly tragic figure. He’s an IRS auditor whose life is guided by a despotic wristwatch and who goes to sleep every night alone. As if to distract himself from a numbing inner void, Crick reduces the world around him to numbers. He counts the stairs, he counts the zebra lines at crosswalks, he counts the number of strokes as he stands in front of the bathroom mirror brushing his teeth.

One day, Crick starts hearing voices. Well, one voice in particular: that of an erudite and authoritative British woman. The voice is narrating Crick’s every movement, and it’s a little too good at pinpointing exactly what he knows to be wrong with his life. The next morning, the voice suddenly slips into the third person omniscient, suggesting that Harold is going to die—and imminently. Safe to say, that kind of announcement can make a guy nervous. Distrusting his shrink (Linda Hunt)’s diagnosis of schizophrenia, Crick approaches Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), a literature professor who instantly gets down to working out whether Crick is in a comedy or a tragedy.

Around this time, Crick begins auditing a pixieish, anarchist baker named Ana Pascale (Maggie Gyllenhaal). As the two polar opposites slowly warm to each other (over delectable baked goods), Crick’s desire to avert his death becomes of paramount importance.

Then, one day, there she is, on Book TV. The voice narrating Crick’s previously uneventful life is that of Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), an eccentric and deeply troubled author with a taste for the ironic and macabre. When Crick tracks her down to ask that she resist killing him off, Forster’s film becomes a wonderful meditation on the meeting point between art and reality and what makes life worth living.

Stranger than Fiction is that rare film whose brains and heart exist in relative balance. It’s no Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but it’s a definite must-see. Helm is undoubtedly a writer (and soon to be director) to watch.

Stranger Than Fiction is now playing at the Paramount (259 Richmond St. W.), Silvercity Yonge and Eglington (2300 Yonge St.), the Varsity (55 Bloor St. W.) and others."

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