Stranger than Fiction

The Contenders

Release: Nov. 10

Distributor: Sony

Oscar Alums: Dustin Hoffman (actor, “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Rain Man”), Emma Thompson (actress, “Howards End”; screenplay, “Sense and Sensibility”), Scott Millan (sound, “Ray,” “Gladiator,” “Apollo 13”), Michael Semanick (sound, “King Kong,” “LOTR: Return of the King”)

Screenwriters are notoriously critical of voiceover narration, and yet newcomer Zach Helm delivers a film in which the script as well as the narrator (Emma Thompson) are likely to attract Academy attention.

Like Charlie Kaufman’s ambitious “Adaptation” (which snagged an adapted screenplay nom four years ago), Helm’s original script for “Stranger Than Fiction” deconstructs the very nature of storytelling. Helm pulls off his high-concept shtick as a romantic comedy with broad commercial appeal, in which the movie’s sad-sack leading man, a lonely Internal Revenue Service auditor named Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) discovers he’s the doomed hero in a novel called “Death and Taxes.”

Where “Adaptation” attacked the notion of artistic compromise, Helm’s script does something else entirely, questioning the obligations writers have to their characters.

When the narrator announces Crick’s “imminent death,” both Ferrell and his surroundings (the work of production designer Kevin Thompson) appear to come alive as the helpless character tries to take charge of his fate.

With its meta-savvy sense of humor, “Stranger Than Fiction” could be Ferrell’s “Truman Show,” giving the comic actor the right stage to show off his dramatic chops. That said, “Truman” star Jim Carrey has yet to be nominated. Even if this role doesn’t register with the Academy, it certainly lays the groundwork for voters to consider Ferrell’s next dramatic outing.

Meanwhile, Thompson brings a soulful fragility to the narrator who also factors as a character in the film. With her puffy red eyes and nervous fingers, Thompson’s Karen Eiffel is the very incarnation of writer’s block, a virtual collection of insecurities and obsessive-compulsive disorders as she incessantly fidgets with her cigarettes or Kleenex tissue.

Other supporting roles are also strong, including Maggie Gyllenhaal as the “auditee” who gives Crick’s life meaning, and Dustin Hoffman as the aloof literary expert who helps Crick try to understand his predicament.

Already on the Academy’s radar, “Finding Neverland” director Marc Forster never makes the same movie twice, bringing a stylish touch to his first comedy, but pic will have to catch on with auds to propel these other ingredients into the kudosphere.

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