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Stranger Than Fiction (4 stars)

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(12A) 113min

We’re so used to Will Ferrell playing the crazed maniac that it’s a pleasant surprise to see that he can play the straight guy equally well. He’s Howard Crick, a taxman with an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder whose life is turned upside down when he hears a voice in his head. The voice narrates all aspects of his hitherto humdrum and boring existence. It’s the type of story that one expects to be penned by Charlie Kaufman or David O Russell. Indeed, as the plot develops and we discover that the voice in his head is an author (Emma Thompson) with writer’s block, the similarities to Adaptation, Being John Malkovich and I § Huckabees become clear. Yet Stranger Than Fiction has something that separates it from these films - it is defused with a more classic Hollywood morality.

Through his misfortune, Harold starts to become a three-dimensional character and when sent to audit a baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) he falls in love with her. It’s a Capra-esque romance, not believable in the slightest, but perfectly in tune with the sentimental journey Crick undertakes towards the one man who may be able to save him - literary Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman).

The literary allusion and post-modern plot are given further credence by virtue of Marc Forster sitting in the director’s chair. If Thompson’s novelist is famous for her books revolving around death, the same is true of the German born director. From his feature debut Everything Put Together, about infant mortality, through to the Oscar winning Monster’s Ball; his biopic of JM Barrie, Finding Neverland, and the thriller Stay, his films have all focused on death. The director lost a brother when he was a child and it seems he’s continually recapturing that emotional pull on screen. Yet Forster is cleverer than to use cinema as therapy and he ensures that this film is more than a film with a single gimmick; the manic spirit of Preston Sturges has a hold of this voyage of self-discovery (if you need proof seek out his 1947 film The Sin of Harold Diddlebock) that’s packed with laughs and brilliant performances. Thompson in particular hasn’t been this inspired for a long time.

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