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Like Bill Murray, Jim Carrey, and Steve Martin before him, Will Ferrell faces the celebrated comic actor’s dilemma: How do you go from streaking and cracking jokes about whale vaginas to indie cred and critical acclaim? As proved by Broken Flowers, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and, well, nothing Martin’s ever been in, it’s never a bad idea to cede control to a clever writer. Stranger Than Fiction stretches this maxim to its logical extreme. While brushing his teeth one day, Ferrell’s Harold Crick, a schlubby, strait-laced IRS auditor, suddenly hears a woman’s lilting voice (Emma Thompson) narrate the mundane details of his day in novelistic detail. The voice makes definitive proclamations about his lifestyle and behavior (“At precisely 11:13 every night, Harold would go to bed alone”), foretells his gawky attraction to a tattooed baker named Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and announces matter-of-factly that Harold is going to die, and soon. Ferrell gets to show off his comic timing, shouting back at the off-screen narrator and stomping around a bit. But mostly he plays the straight man, acting alternately bemused and frustrated as he figures out he’s a character in someone else’s story. It’s an impressive performance, especially considering that he’s playing off a disembodied voice. The film’s most notable triumph, though, belongs to first-time feature-film scripter Zach Helm, who pulls off a story that had the potential to be a too-clever-by-half Charlie Kaufman rip-off. There are plenty of things wrong with Stranger Than Fiction, including extraneous characters (Queen Latifah’s pointless novelist’s assistant) and inessential plotlines (Dustin Hoffman, in a virtual reprise of his existential detective role from I § Huckabees, is irksome as a literary professor who helps Harold figure out who’s telling his story). Still, the winning touches—the catchy Spoon songs that make up the film’s score, the endearing supporting turn as Harold’s only friend by Arrested Development’s Tony Hale—outnumber the missteps. Most important, the film’s perilously cutesy central conceit never gets off track, nor does the standard-issue love story between Harold and Ana. The voiceover shtick works because it’s more than just a parlor trick. Helm, Ferrell, and Gyllenhaal convince us that there are real lives at stake. That’s what makes Harold’s story worth telling. —Josh Levin