Once an actor gets big enough to take whatever kind of role he wants, it makes sense that the biggest stretch imaginable, given his current situation, is the part of a powerless man with no control over the world around him. Call it a “nice” movie — a vehicle designed to tone down or subvert the very mania that gives the star his juice. Stranger Than Fiction is Will Ferrell’s nice movie in the sense that The Truman Show was Jim Carrey’s, and it comes at roughly the same point in his career.
Ferrell’s aggression is less overt than Carrey’s — so was Genghis Khan’s — but it’s there in that Bullwinkle frame, behind those boyish, faintly blobby features. His supporting role in Old School provided the template for most of his starring vehicles: alpha males with omega self-awareness, softies who take to machismo like a baby to lead paint chips. The anchor-stud with the Johnny Wadd mustache who loses his desk; the NASCAR hotshot who loses his pole position; the ass-chewing soccer coach who loses his son’s affection — Ferrell the bellowing teddy bear makes a desperate joke of bare-chested manliness, never more so than when he’s bare-chested.
Stranger Than Fiction plays up the moony softness that Ferrell usually plays against. As Harold Crick, an obsessive-compulsive IRS agent (forgive the redundancy), he’s introduced as the kind of benumbed mope who notes day after day the number of steps to the bus stop and follows an exact routine of toothbrush strokes. This we know because a disembodied voice on the soundtrack spells out each of Harold’s idiosyncrasies. Then Harold hears it too.
This moment, at which the movie flies off into metafictional fancy, could’ve been a comic haymaker. It’s not — director Marc Forster’s comedy chops haven’t developed much since that sex scene shot through a freakin’ birdcage in Monster’s Ball — but it’s enough to send Ferrell’s Harold into a panicky tailspin. This becomes a nosedive after he flubs an audit meeting with a rebellious, tattooed baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Meanwhile, as Harold rails against the narrator in his head, reclusive author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) tries to chain-smoke her way out of writer’s block as she struggles with her long-delayed novel — which points toward the death of a mope named Harold Crick.
Many minds have compared Zach Helm’s zig-zagging script to the work of Charlie Kaufman, whose name has become shorthand for self-reflexive gamesmanship with screenwriting convention. The difference seems obvious. Kaufman’s scripts anchor their craziest conceits in something actual: the real John Malkovich, the real Chuck Barris, even the real Charlie Kaufman — not to mention real anguish and alienation. Stranger Than Fiction merely layers whimsy upon whimsy. As written, Harold Crick is no more convincing a human being than he is an IRS agent; Kay Eiffel’s writing, supposedly good enough to inspire the career-long devotion of a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman), sounds as dully declamatory as movie-trailer narration.
And yet when the actors enter Helm’s artificial constructs, some small miracle happens that’s not unlike Harold’s efforts to escape his creator. I don’t believe that of all the songs he could use to woo the baker, the uptight taxman would somehow dust off Wreckless Eric’s wonderful 1978 Stiff single “Whole Wide World.” But the way Ferrell performs it — plunking sweetly on two strings of an electric guitar in a smitten trance — rivals John Cusack holding aloft his boombox as a grandly goofy romantic gesture. However absurd it seems for the baker, Ana, to fall for her sad-sack auditor — how often you wanna bet that happens? — Gyllenhaal redeems the contrivance with dizzy charm and the wide-eyed suggestion of a kind heart. Given the magic timing his oracular lines require, and get, Hoffman’s readings might as well be rabbits snatched from an endlessly capacious hat. With the exception of Queen Latifah, stuck with a go-nowhere role as Eiffel’s handler, the performances succeed where Harold fails: gaining a life independent of their author.
Forster can be a tiresomely literal director: In the early scenes, he plasters the screen with measurements to show Harold’s mental computations, creating an IKEA catalog of visual clutter. But his eventual muffling of the script’s wackiness proves to be a sound choice. If Harold’s life is a story, Hoffman’s professor wonders, is it a comedy or a tragedy? Forster’s direction leaves the question open. As Eiffel’s novel nears its preordained ending, good news for the author and bad news for her subject, Stranger Than Fiction becomes a fable about a creator’s responsibility to his/her creations — something to bear in mind every time a film strains for significance with a last-minute eruption of violence. The ending Helm devises — a witty deflection of cheap third-act irony — shows he’s thought about it seriously.