November 20, 2006 12:00 PM

Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Queen Latifah



To score with students and teach ’em about literature at the same time, high school English teachers might consider organizing a class field trip to see this delightful movie. Not that there’s anything pedantic about Stranger Than Fiction. A conceptual comedy, it’s about Harold Crick (Ferrell), a timorous IRS tax auditor who wakes up one day to find his life is being narrated in a voice only he can hear, as if he were a character in a novel. Which, it turns out, he is. Popular author Karen Eiffel (Thompson) is writing about Harold, unaware that he’s a real person. Worse, she’s planning to kill him off.

Fiction ably spins its premise in engaging ways, including an amusing dissection of literary structure. (“Don’t do anything that moves the plot forward,” advises a fiction expert, expertly played by Hoffman, whom Harold consults. Harold complies by lolling on his couch for 24 hours.) Rookie screenwriter Zach Helm and director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland) have made a film that’s dizzyingly smart but also compassionate. A talented cast breathes warm life into characters who too easily could be, well, literary conceits. Ferrell is appealingly dorkish, Thompson is wryly sour, and Gyllenhaal is winsome, playing a baker whom Harold romances. (PG-13)

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