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During an interview for his latest film, Stranger than Fiction, a professorial Dustin Hoffman shares an intriguing anecdote about a scenario that fueled many a late-night debate among his unemployed acting compatriots back in the day.

“The Louvre is on fire … and you only have time to save the ‘Mona Lisa’ or this scraggly alley cat, which would you pick? We would sit around and argue this over a joint and some wine.”

It’s a classic conundrum reminiscent of all-night college bull sessions — minus the likes of Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall — but the choice remains confounding.

“I would like to think I would pick life,” Hoffman says. Because with art, and his art in particular, “It is all of us guys trying to imitate God, so why not go with the real thing?”

The choice — do you choose art or life? — is posed in Stranger than Fiction, one that is asked rather directly of its protagonist Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), a lonely IRS agent who discovers that he is the fictional creation of a writer (Emma Thompson) caught in the grips of a 10-year bout of writer’s block — but who has just made a breakthrough and is about to kill Harold.

Beyond Harold’s obvious problem, the timing of her crashing through the wall comes when he has just begun to take command of his life. Harold starts enjoying a variety of experiences he has largely left unexplored — learning guitar, savoring a good homemade cookie and falling in love with a baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) whom he met while doing an IRS audit.

Hoffman plays Jules Hilbert, a literary professor who helps Harold investigate the voice he hears in his head, which belongs to Thompson’s writer/narrator.

Jules’ slightly humorous questions start Harold’s quest to embrace life and lead to the next fork in the road.

Is life a comedy or a tragedy? Harold literally finds himself keeping a tally — as only a solitary anal-retentive obsessive would — of the comedic and tragic elements in order to ascertain the empirical truth. Ultimately, this all leads to the confounding news that Harold must die in order to preserve a staggering work of art.

Is this the blueprint for a prestigious comic masterwork from Marc Forster, the director of Monster’s Ball? Forster was far from the first choice for producer Lindsay Doran who had been developing the story with writer Zack Helm for several years.

“Marc Forster was the very first name I crossed off, which he’s well aware of, because all I had seen was Monster’s Ball at that point,” she says. “And I frankly couldn’t see the correlation. I mean it was a movie designed from a checklist of depressing elements. This was just not the guy to do our funny, romantic movie.”

Fortunately, Doran saw Finding Neverland.

“Its first 10 minutes made me change my mind,” she says, a good thing considering that over 40 directors approached her about this movie. “He came in and talked about the whole thing. Most importantly, this decision to choose life over art.”

So once you have a director who sees the big picture, how do you find the star at the center of it all? Do you go with the perennial, glamorous favorites — Russell Crowe, Will Smith, Johnny Depp — for your ordinary schlep? Do you choose a dramatic actor who can be funny or transform a funnyman into a dramatic presence à la Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a movie many critics have already begun using as an initial point of comparison? My personal assertion is that Stranger than Fiction is more akin to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love.

From the moment he appears onscreen, Ferrell injects Harold Crick with a level of real human depth audiences might find unlikely in relation to many of his previous performances. Ferrell is tall and gangly, a study of limbs full of Jim Carrey plasticity, but somehow more awkward. His approach is quiet and mannered, although it never feels like he’s reining himself in. He is simply struggling to connect as Adam Sandler’s character did in Punch-Drunk Love.

Hoffman remembers Ferrell as seeming “shy and guileless” during their first meeting, but he knew he was right for the part.

“He was acting right from the third or fourth take in the first scene we had (together), and I said, ‘Uh-oh, he’s more real than I am.’ I went to the director and I said that he (Ferrell) is really working very subtly. The director agreed with me and I said I better match that because I realized that he was showing me up.”

As a final bit of icing, Hoffman acknowledged Ferrell as “an actor,” but it’s Hoffman’s initial assessment of him that is most intriguing upon meeting the comic actor in person.

During his Stranger than Fiction interview, Ferrell is subdued, thoughtful and internally engaged. He speaks at one point of once wearing his pajamas to school as a kid. Not because of a dare or an outlandish plot to be funny, but to test himself. He wanted to see if he could stand up to the ridicule and shame he might attract. It is this choice, his decision to be funny that seems the strangest of all because he consciously chose an act that might be funny, but might also alienate him from his peers.

Ferrell finds himself on a journey beyond the constraints of fiction heading toward a place where art becomes life. On this path, there’s no need to choose life over art. (tt clinkscales)