Stranger Than Fiction, a fanciful confection about a nebbish who finds out he’s a character in a novelist’s unhappy ending, may not add up to much more than the standard studio-made exhortation to live your life, not your fears or fantasies. But the movie, directed by Marc Forster (Finding Neverland) from a screenplay by Zach Helm, teems with ideas both literary and existential, which might make it unbearably precious, were it not redeemed by woozy charm and some serious acting from Will Ferrell.
Ferrell plays Harold Crick, a compulsively routinized IRS agent whose devotion to dental hygiene is such that when he begins hearing a voice in his head, he thinks it’s coming from his toothbrush. In fact, the posh tones that nudge Harold through another dreary day at the office belong to Kay Eiffel (the congenitally rosy Emma Thompson, powdered into depressive pallor), a reclusive has-been novelist who’s stumped for an ending to what her publisher hopes will be her comeback masterpiece. As Harold discovers to his horror, he is not just any voice in her head, but the chief protagonist of her novel, and she’s searching for a theatrical way to kill him off. This will take some doing, for Harold and his creator live parallel lives of dispiriting sterility. Their comfortless apartments look like unfurnished hotel rooms. They have no lovers and next to no friends, though Ms. Eiffel has been sent an assistant, Ms. Escher (Queen Latifah), to help her find a way to bump off Harold precisely when he’s found a reason to live. Which he does, with help from English professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), who, despite seeing nothing literary in Harold, urges him to escape his fate by venturing into a classic romantic comedy — with someone who hates him.
Eiffel, Escher, Hilbert — it’s not just the names in Stranger Than Fiction that are winking metatext at you. Like his fellow pomo wise guys Wes Anderson and Charlie Kaufman, screenwriter Helm can barely contain the multitude of voices in his own self-conscious head. He has stuffed his debut script with thoughts on writer’s block, the limits of authorial control, chance versus destiny versus human agency, and the inseparability of sorrow and laughter in life and art. Though entertaining enough for comp-lit types and other sophisticates, at times the Babel threatens to turn into babble. But as with Anderson, et al., the formless rush of cerebral digression is anchored by an endearingly awkward romanticism, and never more so than in the transformation of Harold Crick.
Though he’s always fun to watch, Ferrell has rarely been asked to do more than bat his baby blues and cut up like an outsize puppy jumping up to place his paws on your chest. Here he plays, absolutely straight, a man who’s a figure of fun or pity to everyone but his scared self. Surrounded by CGI graphics that signal his dependence on his cherished wristwatch, Harold creeps through life shrouded in the sad, chill mist that seems always to attend the terminally lost or lonely. Ferrell doesn’t let up on Harold’s muted unhappiness, but he makes us long for a shift — textual or actual, but preferably carnal — in the poor guy’s fortunes. So one hopes for the best when Harold’s literary travels lead him to the earth-toned premises of Ms. Pascal (is Helm referencing the wager guy, or sucking up to she who shines the green light at Columbia Studios?), a tattooed holistic baker (played by the lovely Maggie Gyllenhaal, if only she’d stand up straight) with firm views on the unholy relationship between America’s fiscal and foreign policy. She may hate the IRS, but it’s Harold who’s about to get an audit in the sweet currency of milk and cookies before bed, and the virtues of living with the certain knowledge of death. I mean, who wouldn’t choose a Hollywood ending when the alternative is getting stranded in someone else’s intertextuality?
STRANGER THAN FICTION | Directed by MARC FORSTER | Written by ZACH HELM | Produced by LINDSAY DORAN | Released by Columbia Pictures | Citywide