Dir: Marc Forster. US. 2006.118mins.
A highly original script by newcomerZach Helm, some superlative performances and the deft guiding hand of directorMarc Forster, trying his hand at comedy for the first time, make Stranger Than Fiction the season's must-seefilm for discerning audiences. Financed and co-produced by Mandate Pictures,the film is having its world premiere at Torontowhere feverishly strong word-of-mouth will begin its work in advance of its US releasethrough Sony on Nov 10.

Helm's script is of theCharlie Kaufman school of wild imagination and itbears no little resemblance to Kaufman's Adaptation,which took $22.5m in North America in 2002/3.This script, also about the writing process, is more breezythan Kaufman's and it doesn't have the edge or darkness that make Kaufman''s voice inimitable. In accessibility terms,however, Helm's is a much cleaner, neater package and it will tickle a largertheatrical audience than Adaptation,especially since it boasts Will Ferrell in the lead role. It also bearsthematic similarities to The Truman Show,but is too sophisticated to rival that 1998 film's broad demographic appeal($125m domestic gross, $122m international), even with Ferrell.

Set in sunny present day Chicago, Stranger Than Fiction follows a dull, solitary tax agent calledHarold Crick whose daily routine is controlled and timed precisely to theminute. We hear a female voice narrating his morning schedule and his trip towork, his arrival at work, his day and his solitary evening.

The following day, however,as he embarks on the same procedure as the day before, he too can suddenly hearthe woman's voice correctly predicting what he will do and, worst of all,announcing that his death is imminent.

The woman's voice is that ofKaren Eiffel (Thompson), a depressive novelist with writer's block strugglingto find an appropriate way to kill Crick whom she believes is just a characterin her latest book. Eiffel's publisher is putting pressure on her to finish thenovel which is past its deadline and has dispatched a pushy assistant (Queen Latifah) to help Eiffel finish Crick off.

Crick quickly discovers thatonly he can hear the voice and is distracted as he goes out to audit afree-spirited baker called Ana (Gyllenhaal),listening as the voice tells him how much attracted he is to her. Desperate toavoid his death, he sets about discovering who is narrating his life, going tothe local university to seek help from a literary theorist called Jules Hilibert (Hoffman) who suggests that he turn his story froma tragedy to a comedy and embark on a love story with Ana.

As he starts to enjoy hislife and taste love for the first time, Harold determines to thwart thenarrator and his quest for survival ultimately leads him to Eiffel (Thompson),who has just come up with the ideal way to kill him. Fortunately for Crick, shehas not yet typed up her thoughts, but when both Hilibertand Crick read her notes, they realise that Eiffel'sbook is a masterpiece and has to end with Crick's death. It is up to Eiffel todecide whether Crick's life is worth snuffing out for the sake of a great pieceof literature.

Leaving behind the intensedrama of Monster's Ball, Finding Neverlandand Stay, Forster applies a lightnessof touch and sweetly optimistic tone to the quirky material. His ensemble isnothing short of perfect: Ferrell is restrained and appealing as Crick, Gyllenhaal a delight as the spunky Ana and veteransThompson and Hoffman add both humour and soul to theproceedings. Thompson, in particular, brings a gravitas to the film's endingwhich brings tears to the eyes.

If the film is too light asouffle to win awards in best picture or director categories, its screenplayand performances - perhaps Ferrell and Thompson - could certainly qualify, andmany voters will appreciate how cleverly the film sustains its conceit frombeginning to end. Like the best souffles, the blend of ingredients here riseswell once cooked.

Production companies/backers
Three Strange Angels
Mandate Pictures
Columbia Pictures

US distribution
Columbia Pictures

International sales
Mandate Pictures

Executive producers
Nathan Kahane
Joe Drake
Eric Kopeloff

Lindsay Doran

Zach Helm

Roberto Schaeffer

Production design
Kevin Thompson

Matt Chesse

Britt Daniel
Brian Reitzell

Main cast
Will Ferrell
Maggie Gyllenhaal
Emma Thompson
Dustin Hoffman
Queen Latifah
Tom Hulce
Linda Hunt