Will Ferrell and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Stranger Than FictionSTRANGER THAN FICTION

While watching an emotional climax toward the end of Marc Forster's Stranger Than Fiction, I experienced the oddest case of déjà vu. In the film, a man discovers that his life may be in the hands of an unseen puppet-master - that he, himself, has no control over his own existence - and all of a sudden I was transported back to June of 1997, watching Peter Weir's The Truman Show. Yet what set me off wasn't just that the metaphysics of the two films are similar, or even that a comedian (Will Ferrell instead of Jim Carrey) was enacting the situation; it was that the protagonist's seemingly hopeless circumstances had me in tears, and yet all around me, people were laughing.

It would be easy to attribute this to an audience's natural reaction to Will Ferrell - people see him, and they start giggling. But I think the laughter has more to do with the rather extraordinary nature of what Forster and screenwriter Zach Helm are attempting here. Its basic setup is, of course, ridiculous - Ferrell discovers that he's actually a character in a book being written by author Emma Thompson (she's the Ed Harris to Ferrell's Carrey), and, while grappling with this already heady information, also learns of the author's intent to kill him off. However, in a surprising touch, Forster and screenwriter Zach Helm use this scenario less for humor than for heartbreak. Like The Truman Show, the film is about someone coming to terms with their essential meaninglessness, and a good portion of the audience, I'm guessing, doesn't know how to react to this. I found Stranger Than Fiction's melancholy intensely moving. Apparently, my fellow audiences members found it hysterical.

Ah well ... potato potahto. Whether people laugh or cry at Stranger Than Fiction is irrelevant so long as they see it. (And I certainly don't want to suggest that the movie is relentlessly downbeat. It isn't depressing; it's thoughtful.) Admittedly, Zach Helm establishes a metaphysical conundrum that he can't quite get himself out of; we're never entirely sure whether Thompson's narrative affects Ferrell's actions or vice versa. But his writing is inventive and graceful, and Forster pulls off clever visual stunts - such as using animated schematics to diagram the day-to-day predictability of Ferrell's life - that work for the director in a way similar trickery didn't in his Finding Neverland.

Forster also seems remarkably attuned to the subtle emotional shifts of his actors, particularly Thompson and the great Maggie Gyllenhaal, a dream as the initially reticent baker who takes a liking to Ferrell. (Ferrell's conciliatory gift to her - an assortment of flours - is the most touching romantic gesture the movies have given us in years.) And while Ferrell himself, at this point, is still a bit italicized - like Carrey and Robin Williams when they're in "restrained" mode, you can always sense his comic's mind racing - he's certainly sincere, and makes his character's fatalism enormously touching. The comic has never had a problem making people laugh. Stranger Than Fiction shows that, if he wants to, Ferrell should also have no trouble making them cry ... so long as audiences let him.


Russell Crowe and Marion Cotillard in A Good YearA GOOD YEAR

Ridley Scott's A Good Year is a little like Under the Tuscan Sun as directed by, and starring, Jerry Lewis. Scott's film - which concerns a snobby, workaholic jerk (Russell Crowe) whose brittle exterior cracks during a prolonged visit to his uncle's French estate and accompanying vineyard - should be the very model of a lightweight diversion; it doesn't aim to do much more than show off gorgeous vistas and gorgeous women, and it gives Crowe the rare on-screen opportunity to be genial and funny. So why is A Good Life about as pleasurable as a root canal?

Maybe because both Scott and Crowe appear to have confused charm with mania. It's nice to see the heavyweight director behind Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven trying for something fluffy and innocuous, but the trying is all you see; with the film's embarrassing slapstick, pushy sentimentality, and grotesque mugging by several principals, A Good Year finds Scott shoving affability down our throats. The movie looks great, of course, but it's simultaneously hyperactive and heavy-spirited - unfortunately for Scott, on-screen charm is something that can't be easily faked. And perhaps no one understands that better than Crowe, whose smirk here reads of uncertainty and desperation, and whose humiliating pratfalls make you wince for the actor, not the character. (Crowe looked more comfortable taking socks to the jaw in Cinderella Man.) He just doesn't have the lightness the material demands, and his presence here underscores how thudding and laborious A Good Year really is - it's a shepherd's pie that thinks it's a soufflé.



By this time last year, I had seen nine documentary releases at local theatres. This year I've seen one - An Inconvenient Truth. It's been a tough stretch for doc hounds, but one of the year's few notable titles - Wordplay - has just been released on DVD, and you shouldn't even consider missing it, even if (perhaps especially if) the idea of a documentary devoted to crossword puzzles strikes you at almost unbearably dull. It's hard to fathom, in fact, how Wordplay could be less dull.

Granted, I do consider myself a crossword fan, and have happily devoted hours - days even - to solving the weekly head-scratchers that generally appear on the second-to-last page of this publication. But given Patrick Creadon's imaginative direction, the film's snappy pace, and its clever blend of fascinating information and useless trivia, even logophobes should find Wordplay completely accessible and, better yet, hugely entertaining.

A batch of celebrity nerds - among them Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, filmmaker Ken Burns, New York Yankee Mike Mussina, and the Indigo Girls - happily admit to their dependence on the pastime, and there's surprisingly trenchant insight into the "do"s and "don't"s of crossword creation; who knew that "enema" and "urine" were banned by the New York Times' editors? (The words don't sit well with breakfast.) There are hilarious sequences on proper newspaper-folding techniques and the eternal "pencil or pen?" debate, plus a jaw-dropper of a climax, set at the 28th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. (It ends in tears.) And while designing the film around a climactic competition owes a bit too much to the spelling-bee documentary Spellbound - and this work is actually more sentimental than Spellbound - there are certainly less involving films to steal from. During an interview near the finale, a tournament contestant admits to being nervous about the event, but says he's "not as nervous as I was in the bee final a few years ago." I felt the same, but Wordplay is still a gas.

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