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Will Ferrell's a surprisingly good fit in 'Stranger Than Fiction'

Phoebe Flowers
South Florida Sun-Sentinel

IRS agent Harold Crick leads a pathologically solitary and fastidious life until suddenly, one day, he hears a voice narrating his everyday activities. The voice, it turns out, belongs to a novelist named Kay Eiffel. Harold, despite being a real person living in the real world, is also a character in Kay's work-in-progress.

That's the premise of "Stranger Than Fiction," opening Nov. 10 and starring Will Ferrell and Emma Thompson. Hearing such a self-consciously loopy plot description, you can be forgiven if your mind jumps instantly to Charlie Kaufman - or, if you don't know him by name, the titles of the movies he's written: "Adaptation," "Being John Malkovich," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

But Charlie Kaufman did not write, nor have anything to do with, "Stranger Than Fiction." And that's something that the film's director, Marc Forster, has to address far more often than he'd like.

"I find that that's not totally correct," Forster said of the perceived connection between his latest movie - which was, in fact, scripted by first-timer Zach Helm - and Kaufman's oeuvre.

"I think it's a more a comedy like `Groundhog Day,' let's say, than like the Charlie Kaufman work," the director explained in an interview at September's Toronto International Film Festival, where "Stranger Than Fiction" debuted. "I think Charlie Kaufman's work is more intellectual, and this is more emotional."

Emotion is territory with which the German-born Forster, 37, is well acquainted. He first came to attention in 2002 for the dark drama "Monster's Ball" - directing Halle Berry to a best-actress Oscar - and was further lauded for 2004's "Finding Neverland."

But, on the surface at least, it seems a bit odd to cast the lead role with a "Saturday Night Live" alumnus who is best known for playing monumental doofuses in broad comedies like the recent hit :Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby." It inevitably draws the kind of additional scrutiny that previously greeted Adam Sandler in "Punch-Drunk Love," or Jim Carrey in "The Truman Show." (Although, of course, it was in "Eternal Sunshine" that Carrey gave his most acclaimed dramatic performance to date.)

But Forster, while he admitted that Ferrell was "a bit on unknown territory," never doubted the actor's ability to excel in the role. "I look at even, you know, `Anchorman,'" he said, "and I think he really gets in there to make the character believable. Even though it's broad and totally out there, he really has this total commitment to his characters."

Forster also felt that Ferrell was vital in making Harold Crick, who at the start of the movie is so anal retentive you're almost surprised he isn't a serial killer, a likeable character.

"That's part of the reason why I cast Will, because he has so much humanity," Forster said. "With his natural charisma, he comes across as very humane and loving and giving. It's a pretty easy thing to put him in a part like that, and then restrain him, in a sense, so that he becomes this sort of dehumanized character in this dehumanized world, with his job and everything. And still he has this warm spot that gives the audience the opportunity to access (the character)."

Ferrell seems to appreciate the vote of confidence. "Getting to do something like this is obviously a little different from a lot of the other stuff that I've done, in the sense that it's, I guess, more muted, even though it is a comedy," he said. "I found it really freeing to be able to ... for lack of a better term, to play something as real as I've gotten to play."

The movie, Ferrell continued, is "a completely different type of film - not only as an acting exercise for me, but also thematically - of anything else I've gotten to do."

Perhaps because of "Stranger Than Fiction's" unique story line, it attracted a stellar and unexpected cast. In addition to the Oscar-winning Thompson, the movie features Dustin Hoffman as a literary theorist who helps Harold determine if the novel in which he is a central character is a comedy or drama. Queen Latifah plays a sort of personal motivator sent to help Kay get over writer's block. The gifted comedian Tony Hale - Buster on Fox's late sitcom "Arrested Development" - is Harold's delightfully nerdy IRS coworker. And Maggie Gyllenhaal has a substantial role as a semi-anarchist baker whom Harold is forced to audit.

Gyllenhaal, like the movie's star, was a deliberately offbeat choice. "Once I cast Will Ferrell, it was really key for me to find the romantic lead opposite him," Forster said. "I wanted someone who is not ... known as a romantic lead. And Maggie came from independent films; `World Trade Center' is really her first bigger, sort of mainstream film. I wanted her to really have street cred, in a sense."

The edginess of Gyllenhaal's character is one of the elements that keeps "Stranger Than Fiction," which turns out to be a surprisingly poignant romantic comedy, from drifting into the realm of sap. However, that's something else with which Forster has experience.

"With `Finding Neverland,' it was really hard, because the script was pretty saccharine," Forster said frankly. "I really had to restrain it - to work with dogs and kids, which is saccharine in itself! It was tough work. ... With this one, it was a little easier."

Even though Forster is effusive about Helm's debut screenplay, he said avoiding treacly sentiment is always a factor in his filmmaking.

"The main thing for me is just to always keep that balance between restraint and emotion. ... When you make a movie, obviously you manipulate in one way or another. But the manipulation can't become too overt or too leading, or too annoying. It's a thin line; you always try to walk on it."



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