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'Stranger than Fiction' works on many levels

Ferrell shines in dramatic role

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'Stranger than Fiction' works on many levels
Submitted — Will Ferrell in a scene from "Stranger than Fiction," a Columbia Pictures release.

Most comedians reach a point in their cinematic careers where, at the risk of alienating their diehard fans, they try their hands at more dramatic roles.

A few years ago, Jim Carrey had his critically acclaimed "Truman Show," Adam Sandler showed surprising depth in "Punch-Drunk Love" and now Will Ferrell takes his turn in "Stranger than Fiction."

After several successful seasons on television's "Saturday Night Live," Ferrell is now a major box office draw, racking up big numbers for low-brow comedies such as "Talladega Nights" and "Old School."

"Fiction" gives the Ferrell the opportunity to play it straight for once. It's strange to see this side of the actor, but he turns in an amazing, rock-solid performance.

Ferrell is Harold Crick, a mathematically minded auditor for the Internal Revenue Service. Crick brushes his teeth the same way each morning and knows exactly how many steps he needs to take to reach the bus stop.

Crick's orderly universe slowly unravels, though, after his wristwatch malfunctions on one unusual Wednesday morning.

At the bus stop, Harold starts hearing a woman's voice in his head. This disembodied narrator comments on Harold's actions and hidden desires and rocks his world by predicting his imminent death.

Harold, of course, is quite upset at this turn of events. Distracted by the voice, he misses the bus for the first time and, at work, his uncanny talent for multiplying complex numbers in his head fails him.

In desperation, Harold seeks out Dr. Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), a literary expert who tries to determine if he's real or merely fictional. Hilbert even asks Harold a series of probing questions to figure out if he's a tragic hero or simply the comic relief.

As his orderly life fades away, Harold actually comes alive for the very first time, especially after he's assigned to audit the books of Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an attractive baker who hasn't been paying her business taxes.

As Harold build a new life with Ana, he discovers that his mysterious narrator actually is Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a reclusive author who is known for killing off her characters in memorable ways.

His films up to this point haven't show the depth of his acting abilities, but Will Ferrell is letter perfect in "Stranger than Fiction," a well-constructed story that works on many levels.

Taking a chance by casting a comedian in a very dramatic role, director Marc Forster ("Finding Neverland") shows that he likes to shake things up a bit.

Using computer-generated images, Forster also cleverly illustrates Crick's mathematical nature and how he views the world. When Crick begins to lose control of his universe, the computer images break down and fade away.

The script by Zach Helm even takes a cue from "Alice in Wonderland" author Lewis Carroll by incorporating mathematical references into the plot. Ana Pascal, for instance, is named in honor of famed French mathematician Blaise Pascal.

Though his core group of fans may find this film strange, Will Ferrell shows that he truly is a real actor in "Fiction."

"Stranger than Fiction" is rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, sexuality, brief language and nudity.

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