The set-up is unique, but the questions posed in STRANGER THAN FICTION are those many have had to face: "What do you do when you know you're going to die? "
If that was the only question driving the actions of Harold Crik, a shy, sweet, lonely tax auditor for the IRS who suddenly begins to hear his life narrated, the movie might have been amusing, perhaps even decent. Instead, it transcends the confines of a simple comedy by analyzing the mechanics of Harold's own life to further ask: "Is the life you've been leading worth continuing, knowing the reasons behind your death?"
I won't go too much into describing the plot: for reasons known later Harold Crik's (played by Will Ferrel) ordinary clockwork life is turned upside-down when his watch begins to act funny. At the same time, he begins to hear a disembodied voice narrating his life as if he were the main character in a book. The voice is more an annoyance than anything else until one morning the voice says, "Little did he know that events had been set in motion that would lead to his imminent death."
Across town, Emma Thompson plays Karen Eiffel, a reclusive novelist attempting to overcome Writer's Block and finish her first novel in ten years, Death and Taxes, about a lonely IRS agent named Harold Crik. The problem? All of her main characters die at the end of her books, and she has just figured out a way to kill Harold Crik.
As Harold begins to overcome his timid life to embrace the things he's neglected, Will Ferrel turns in an exceptional performance, relying on the humanity of his character and the pathos of his situation to filter through the more comedic elements of the film. He's done drama before (notably WINTER PASSING), but here he makes the kind of turn Jim Carey did in THE TRUMAN SHOW and, to a lesser extent, Tom Hanks did in NOTHING IN COMMON.
Thompson and Dustin Hoffman also do well with their supporting roles. Hoffman in particular plays the quirky comedy well - as he gets older his features and mannerisms lend themselves more to comedy than drama. I didn't think it was possible that Maggie Gyllenhaal could be even more adorable, but here she proves me wrong as the love interest for Ferrel, which should not work on paper, but works wonderfully in the film.
Marc Foster, who has now defied genre labels with his last three films (MONSTER'S BALL, FINDING NEVERLAND and STAY) manages a fine balancing act, never letting the comedy fall too broadly, and letting every moment serve the story as a whole. His visual representation of Harold's thought processes throughout the film are a highlight of one of the best mainstream movies this year.