Will Ferrell is one of Hollywood’s most bankable comedic actors. From “Saturday Night Live” to “Anchorman” to “Elf,” Ferrell is widely known for playing lovable simpletons for laughs.
The actor’s best performance arguably came in a 2006 film, however, that is critically acclaimed but barely made a dent at the box office. While it wasn’t much of a commercial success, “Stranger Than Fiction” has managed to find a dedicated audience due to the film’s unique and thoughtful premise.
In the film, Ferrell plays IRS agent Harold Crick, who starts to hear the voice of a woman narrating everything he does and feels as he’s experiencing it. The movie was influenced by the Spanish novel “Niebla” (Spanish for fog), which focused on a character who becomes aware of a writer narrating his life.
This type of concept could easily be used for over-the-top humor, a Ferrell specialty. But the comedy in this film is subtle and the dialogue is purposeful and eloquent. We see Ferrell at his most sincere, with a sense of kindness and thoughtfulness as he uses light humor to perfection.
Ferrell’s performance isn’t the only thing that makes this film special. Because the person narrating his life is an author, played by Emma Thompson, there’s a number of literary Easter eggs. And because Harold is a math whiz, many of the characters are named after scientists and mathematicians.
This includes Ferrell’s love interest in the film, a baker named Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who Harold’s investigating for tax evasion. She’s named after French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal. Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), a professor Harold reaches out to for help, is named after German mathematician David Hilbert.
The plot: Harold Crick lives an excitement free, solitary life filled with routine. Every day he brushes each of his 32 teeth, exactly 76 times. Every day he ties his tie in a single Windsor knot instead of a double knot because it saves him up to 43 seconds. And every day he goes to work, eats dinner and goes to sleep at 11:13 p.m.
Harold’s life was mundane for 12 straight years until one day he hears a woman narrating his life. At first he tries to ignore the voice inside his head, but when it mentions his “imminent death” he becomes alarmed. Harold decides to seek out help, first from a psychiatrist who thinks he’s schizophrenic and then a professor of literature who helps him realize that the voice is well-known author Karen Eiffel, who’s notorious for killing off her characters.
Realizing he might be killed by the narrator, Harold finds the author and pleads for his life. She is stunned to learn that he actually exists and is left with a dilemma — does she kill off Harold and finish what is likely her greatest work or does she let him live?
Four things to know: 1) The title of the movie comes from a famous quote from Lord Byron’s “Don Juan.” 2) Although it’s not stated in the film, “Stranger Than Fiction” was shot on location in Chicago. 3) The title of the novel Karen Eiffel is working on is called “Death and Taxes,” a reference to a famous quote by Benjamin Franklin. It also alludes to Harold’s possible death and Ana dodging her taxes. 4) Two of Harold’s co-workers, played by TJ Jagodowski and Peter Grosz, star in a series of commercials for Sonic Drive-In.
Best and worst reviews: “Stranger Than Fiction” has an aggregate score of 67/100 on Metacritic and 73% on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert gave it a high score, saying the film, “is a meditation on life, art and romance.” Bill Muller of the Arizona Republic called the film ”overly sentimental.”
Most rewatchable scene: After their first dinner together, Harold notices a guitar as Ana is putting dishes away. He begins to play “Whole Wide World,” a song from 1977 by Wreckless Eric. Harold plays quietly and with his eyes closed as he’s just started to learn to play the guitar and he’s trying to concentrate. He’s not very good, but seeing him play gives Ana a different perspective of Harold. She walks over and kisses him and the original, more raucous version of the song takes over as the scene ends.
Gazette TV critic Terry Terrones is a member of the Television Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @terryterrones.