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STRANGER THAN FICTION

Stranger Than Fiction has been promoted as offering a different kind of Will Ferrell just as The Truman Show was pushed as offering a different kind of Jim Carrey and Punch-Drunk Love was sold as offering a different kind of Adam Sandler. What this means in all instances, of course, is that the comedian is toning down the patented schtick a bit -- not exactly the same as tackling a role that’s equal parts Hamlet, Willy Loman and Stanley Kowalski. Still, Carrey and Sandler both passed the test, and so does Ferrell. The actor’s obnoxious characters have always distracted us from the fact that he’s blessed with deep, soulful eyes, and this physical attribute here lends the proper degree of puppy dog demeanor to his role as Harold Crick, an IRS agent whose dull life is marked by rigid routine. The twist follows that Harold, in addition to living his own life, also inadvertently becomes the lead character in a book being written by reclusive author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson, doing distracted well), and soon Harold begins to hear Kay’s voice in his head as she uncannily narrates all the minute details of his life. For help, Harold turns to a literature professor (a very funny Dustin Hoffman) who might be able to help him track down the source of the voice and ascertain whether he’s trapped in a comedy, in which case a happy ending is just around the corner, or a tragedy, in which case death will come knocking. Despite the innovative premise, the script by Zach Helm never matches the existential, mind-bending depths of, say, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or I Heart Huckabees. This remains a resolutely mainstream offering, with flights of fancy that lightly tickle the brain but never really challenge it.

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