Eccentric 'Stranger Than Fiction' showcases Ferrell's range

"Stranger Than Fiction" most certainly is.

Willyfully eccentric, odd in tone, it's an English major's comedy, a wry exploration of plot, narrative, character and a writer's imprint on her or his work.

It's not particularly deep, and it won't be to everyone's taste. But this whimsical character study is sunny, silly and worth the ride - if for nothing else, showing us that Will Ferrell can make even the straightest character funny.

Harold Crick (Ferrell) is a dull-as-dishwater IRS auditor who is all about efficiency and numbers. He times his every move, counts the strokes as he's brushing his teeth, and can multiply enormous sums in his head.

He's alone. He's not loved. He is, after all, the tax man. People such as the winsome, lefty tax-protesting baker he's auditing, Anna Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), cannot stand him.

But he has this new wristwatch. And it's not just a product placement ad for Timex. It will be, a voice in Harold's head says, "the catalyst for an entirely new life."

He's not told this. He overhears it. It's narration, the story of his life, coming from the mouth of a writer, played by Emma Thompson. Harold must come to grips with having his life story narrated, smugly commented on, and faintly mocked by a woman he cannot see, a voice that only he hears.

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Stranger Than Fiction ***

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"Stranger Than Fiction" most certainly is. It's a wry exploration of plot, narrative, character and a writer's imprint on her or his work. But this whimsical character study about an IRS agent who realizes his life is being narrated is worth the ride - if for nothing else, showing us that Will Ferrell can make even the straightest character funny.

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After yelling "SHUT UP!" into the cosmos a few times, he sets out to find help. The shrink (Oscar-winner Linda Hunt) suggests "schizophrenia" and "medication." And when Harold rejects both, she sends him to a narrative theorist (Oscar-winner Dustin Hoffman).

Maybe it's because he's an academic, indulgent of pretty much any notion, no matter how far-fetched. Maybe it's because Harold is a bit frantic. He has, after all, heard that "Little did he know" that he was about to die.

But maybe it's because Professor Hilbert is the world's foremost expert on "Little did he know." They set out to figure out if Harold has anything to worry about, if he's living a tragedy or a comedy.

"Tragedy, you die," Hilbert deadpans. "Comedy, you get hitched."

Meanwhile, the narrator has problems of her own. She's a famous novelist suffering writer's block. Thompson turns this woman into a chain-smoking wreck, a creative spirit grasping at inspiration wherever she can find it.

Marc Forster ("Finding Neverland"), working from a script by actor-turned-screenwriter Zach Helm, cleverly uses graphics to illustrate Harold's counting and efficiency obsessions. The tone of the movie feels off, with funny characters and smart dialogue all played out under the pall of Harold's "little did he know" fate.

Ferrell doesn't beg for laughs. He lets them come to him, allowing the character and Ferrell's own shticky reputation do the heavy lifting. It's a little like Jim Carrey's turn in "The Truman Show," more sweet than silly.

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Will Ferrell stars as an IRS agent who wakes up one morning and realizes that his monotonous life is being narrated in "Stranger Than Fiction."

Thompson and Hoffman give their characters a heavy dose of droll, which works.

"Stranger Than Fiction" reminds us that we are all the stars of the little tragedies, farces and melodramas of our lives. It's high-minded enough to reference "Remembrance of Things Past," to define the source of Harold's voice as a "third person omniscient" narrator, and low enough to giggle at naked old men in a university shower room.

In other words, if you're looking for "Old School 2," you're going to be disappointed. But embrace its vibe and make yourself open to its heart, and Ferrell and company will surprise you. Stranger things have happened.

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