The new Will Ferrell vehicle will be billed as “existential,” and you’re right to worry. Just understand that Stranger than Fiction deserves its title–which, though courtesy of Mark Twain, doesn’t evoke a perceptive wit so much as signal its debasement from over-quotation. The movie may fancy itself a lively essay on the symbiosis of storytelling and identity, but ultimately it reads more like a cheeky greeting-card cliché.
And that’s not all bad, as Will Ferrell vehicles go. If anything is genuinely existential about this movie, it’s Ferrell’s focused exploration of his own comedic appeal. Just how minimal, how compact, can he make it? How precipitously close can he come to the cliff’s edge between winningly goofy and painfully awkward—still managing to get both the girl and the knowing laugh?
To find out, he portrays Harold Crick, an IRS auditor and complacently lifeless company man, a man of routine and not much else. This Mr. Crick seems rather too deliberately a dullard, in fact, which is meant to suggest that he might be a fiction. One morning, while counting his toothbrush strokes as usual, he hears a voice in his head narrating his own banal life.
And here his character, such as it is, begins to emerge. Too stubborn to accept paranoid schizophrenia as the cause of his condition, Crick suspects some new genre of unwittingly interactive literature. He consults a professor of literary theory, Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), who’s reluctant to help but finally can’t resist showing off his own omniscience about narration. “I’ve written papers on ‘Little did he know,’ ” the professor says, warming to the unusual scholarly challenge at hand. Together they try to figure out whether Crick’s story is a comedy or a tragedy, and who’s writing it.
And so, it develops—at least inasmuch as it can. Crick falls for a woman he’s auditing, a cantankerous bohemian baker named Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who torments him with purposely disorganized financial records, then mothers him with compulsory cookies. The narration continues, and soon he discovers the narrator to be Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a twitchy, chain-smoking Brit whose lofty literary reputation—the professor, for one, adores her work—derives from her penchant for killing off main characters. Actually, that makes some sense, given how bland those characters have proven to be, how prosaic their plots.
But that’s really the fault of screenwriter Zach Helm, who simply hasn’t much of a story to tell, nor even a firm grasp of form, but veils these shortcomings with a dalliance in meta-narrative chic. Accordingly, director Marc Forster, who moved so nimbly between the worlds of life and literature in Finding Neverland, has a clumsy go of that dance here. It’s weird: Eiffel’s narration doesn’t seem to recognize Crick’s recognition that he’s being narrated, but that’s the engine of his story. Eventually he meets his presumed creator, and she’s flabbergasted—as if even the idea that a character could recognize himself as a character had not occurred to her. No wonder her story is such hackwork.
The movie doesn’t really mind; it has other priorities. Maybe you’ve noticed that little surname game—Crick, Hilbert, Pascal, Eiffel (there are more)—suggesting, shall we say, a left-brained sort of creative process, more convincingly scientific than literary, let alone cinematic. Helm even introduces Crick’s wristwatch as a sort of supporting character, arguably better-developed than some of the human ones.
That Stranger than Fiction’s gimmicks and gummy platitudes don’t completely sink it is mostly thanks to Ferrell. Clearly he enjoys playing things simple and straight, and there is much charm in the strong, clean lines of his rendering. It’s the kind of guileless deadpan that Jack Lemmon sometimes used to still himself, with great results, and that we never fully trusted from Bill Murray because we knew him too well (how ironic that the rejection saddened Murray into poignancy—and, accordingly, a career renaissance). It’s also the same comedian-gets-serious business that compelled Jim Carrey toward the narrative self-consciousness of The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Stranger than Fiction wants philosophical kinship with those films, that much is true. What it needs, though, is a reality check.