directed by: Marc Forster
starring: Will Ferrell, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Queen Latifah
Released in 2006.
Will Ferrell is perhaps one of the more unlikely movie stars to emerge in the past ten years. He's one of many comics to come from TV's Saturday Night Live, known for skits and characters. Plenty of successful stars have come from SNL, but few of them have been able to sustain movie careers, and fewer still by basically keeping their SNL persona of inhabiting a new bizarre character with each movie appearance. Ferrell rose to success with Elf and Anchorman, but he's managed to sustain his career by continuing much along the same lines. When he deviates, he's less successful. Usually when a comedic actor deviates, it's to try more serious material, as with Robin Williams and Jim Carrey. Ferrell's Truman Show is called Stranger than Fiction, except it's very much Ferrell's version of the career move. It's more surreal than real.
Essentially, the movie is about Ferrell suddenly gaining a narrator in his life. Now, clearly this is not something that happens in real life, unless someone has developed a psychological disorder. That would be Ferrell's assumption as well, except he doesn't stop there. He consults a literary expert (Dustin Hoffman), to figure out what the narration itself may signify given analysis. Eventually Ferrell actually meets the writer who has been composing the narration (Emma Thompson).
The story also involves a romance for Ferrell (with Maggie Gyllenhaal), which is not something that typically happens in a serious way in a Will Ferrell movie. Oddly, it is an undercurrent in a lot of his movies, but there it is.
It's Ferrell doing a Ferrell movie but in a completely different way. Often in some of his smaller roles he's a character who is watching a greater story develop, reacting more than acting, but here it's Ferrell doing exactly that as the main character, and he plays the part to perfection, and it's a complete revelation.
For the other notable actors in the movie, I'll concentrate on Hoffman. As celebrated as he was early in his career, Hoffman tends to be taken for granted these days, but I always find him fascinating. He throws himself into all of his roles. Someone else might have made this one a counterpoint to Ferrell's or even an outright skeptic, but Hoffman keeps the project firmly grounded in reality, where Thompson exists simply to give it the touch of class that people would either not have expected at all in a Will Ferrell movie, or what they would expect from one in which he's trying to be serious. So it works both ways.
Stranger than Fiction isn't quite the triumph of The Truman Show, but it's certainly far more than a curiosity. It will remain one of Ferrell's best movies probably for a long time to come, something to point to not just to demonstrate his range but what he can accomplish when he pushes his natural instincts to heir best and most unexpected limits.