The film isn’t odd because it’s about a character in a story who tries to influence his author. No, what’s so unusual is the script’s meditation on free will and mortality wrapped in the packaging of a wacky Hollywood comedy. You can easily imagine in your head the luminous, humane, heartwarming, life-affirming masterpiece that this movie wants to be. Focus on what’s actually on the screen, however, and you’ll find that it falls just short.
Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an acutely boring IRS auditor whose boringness diminishes severely when a voice that only he can hear starts describing him and his life’s routine “accurately, and with a better vocabulary,” as he says. That voice belongs to acclaimed, reclusive, creatively blocked novelist Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), who has created Harold as the main character of a book she’s in the process of writing. Little does she know that Harold is a real person who freaks out when he hears her foreshadowing his death.
Harold consults a professor of literary theory (Dustin Hoffman) to find out what kind of story he’s in. After posing a few silly questions, the professor rules out the possibility of the taxman being Hamlet, Scout Finch, Frankenstein’s monster, or a golem. Too bad the movie won’t tell us what Harold is. If he exists independently of Karen’s book, then how does Karen know what will happen to him? If he’s entirely her creation, how does he hear her? After all, most fictional characters aren’t privy to their authors’ thoughts about them. So many other films have handled metafiction better (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story from earlier this year, for one), this one’s ineptness is glaring.
More problematic is the choice of Marc Forster to direct this movie. The Swiss filmmaker has helmed not one but two seriously overrated pictures of recent years: the faux-gritty indie flick Monster’s Ball and the fuzzy J.M. Barrie biopic Finding Neverland. He’s not untalented, and it’s admirable that he tries to make movies that aren’t anything alike. One thing he’s no good at, though, is bringing the funny. A sharper comic mind like Spike Jonze would have played the premise’s absurdity to perfection. Forster’s direction is slick and bright, but he doesn’t have the timing that Zach Helm’s script needs.
Perhaps he expected his actors to pick up the slack, but they don’t. Ferrell is too busy toning down his natural wackiness, and the heavyweight supporting cast never quite rises to the occasion of providing the laughs. Which isn’t to say they’re wasted; Maggie Gyllenhaal finds a wonderful melancholy undertone to her role as an audited baker who falls for Harold — much as she loves baking cookies all day, part of her really wishes she had stuck it out in law school and become a political activist.
Harold’s quest to find meaning in his life before it’s taken from him has its poignancy as well, and the story’s layer of metafiction dries it out so that the proceedings don’t get too weepy. Stranger Than Fiction is always watchable and frequently amusing. It could so easily have been more, though.
Stranger Than Fiction
Starring Will Ferrell and Emma Thompson. Directed by Marc Forster. Written by Zach Helm. Rated PG-13.