On the surface, Stranger Than Fiction looks to be a comic vehicle allowing Will Ferrell to stretch a bit and show off some dramatic chops; however, this sweet-natured movie is actually heavier on the drama than the laughs. Remarkably busy director Marc Forster, who delivered the magnificent Finding Neverland in 2004 and the vastly underappreciated and misunderstood Stay last year, finds the right balance of humor and darkness in this undeniably moving film.
Internal Revenue Service auditor Harold Crick (Ferrell) is brushing his teeth one morning and discovers, much to his dismay, that there is a voice narrating his actions. The voice belongs to Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), an author of books where the protagonist always meets a grisly end. Turns out Harold, a real man, is the subject of her latest book, a book in which she is experiencing writer's block while trying to kill him off.
Harold doesn't figure this out immediately. At first, and logically so, he thinks he's crazy, seeking psychiatric help and yelling at the sky. As the days pass, he recognizes the tone of his inner narrator is akin to that of a novel, so he seeks the help of a literary professor (a hilariously droll Dustin Hoffman). Eventually, he discovers the narrator's identity and seeks her out in earnest, because she has announced that his death is imminent.
The film feels like something Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) might have penned. In actuality, it was written by relative newcomer Zach Helm, who doesn't have any other high-profile projects in his past. Helm's script is quite clever, feeling like a well-written novel rather than a Hollywood gimmick. He and Forster maintain a strict tone with the picture, never allowing it to get too silly or outrageous. Considering the plot, keeping the movie grounded in a sense of reality is quite the accomplishment, but that's precisely what Forster and Helm manage to do.
Ferrell, like Robin Williams, Steve Martin and Jim Carrey before him, jettisons his more manic comic persona for something a little more grounded and somber, and the result is impressive. Sure, he gets the chance to show some of his trademark comic rage, but this is also a film that requires him to shed a few tears, and he does it convincingly. He also makes for a decent romantic lead in one of the film's subplots, with Crick auditing a rebellious baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal). The two have nice screen chemistry, something Ferrell hasn't really shown with any women in his past film roles.
The more I contemplate Ferrell's performance, the more I realize it is a great piece of work, especially considering that this is Frank the Tank we are talking about. Ferrell has had a banner year with this and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. While it is doubtful that this work will garner him respect in the form of awards (Oscar has a hard time with comics turned actors, unless you are Robin Williams), he has most certainly established himself as somebody who can act with the big boys. This pretty much ensures that he can tell the producers of Old School 2 to go screw.
It's nice to see Emma Thompson in a role where her director seems to know she's a great actress. Her recent, heavily made-up roles in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Nanny McPhee did little to display her talents. The last time she really got to do that was in Angels in America three years ago. As for Gyllenhaal, she's always breathtaking. I love the moment where she exclaims, "Get bent ... tax man!" at Crick. In one of the movie's few flaws, Queen Latifah gets an underdeveloped role as Eiffel's assistant. She's required to do next to nothing.
Stranger Than Fiction works as both a satire of modern-day fiction and a meditation on the age-old concept of predestination. On both fronts, the writer, director and performers deliver something that is original and captivating.