Nervous and reserved IRS agent Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) sits near the middle of an articulated double-bus. As it collapses in and expands out like an accordion, Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is alternately pulled close to him and then pushed away. This inventive scene from “Stranger Than Fiction,” where the camera vacillates with the flow of the bus, is a surprisingly beautiful and graceful analogy for the uncertainty of courtship.
It’s the standout moment in a movie that begins with a challenging premise but ultimately settles for a more accessible “carpe diem” kind of message. What could have been a movie about the importance of telling stories ends up being a more traditional relationship film, albeit one with a very likable couple.
|“Are you there God?..|
Harold is a natural with numbers. He has a mind for mathematics and little else. His apartment is barren. His daily routine is the same, timed precisely to his digital watch. Director Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland,” “Monster’s Ball”) visualizes Harold’s perspective on the world with slick onscreen graphics that count and categorize objects the moment they come into his field of vision (and also bring to mind the IKEA sequence of “Fight Club”). As he passes his co-workers in the office, they shout math problems at Harold and get a quick, accurate reply.
When he starts to hear a voice in his head, he soon realizes that somebody is narrating the story of his life. Unbeknownst to Harold, he is a character in a book and Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is the author who foreshadows his every moment. Things go from weird to scary when she speaks of his imminent death, so he turns to a literature professor named Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), who accepts Harold’s plight with lighthearted skepticism.
The screenplay, by Zach Helm, is at its most inspired when Hilbert runs down different literary conventions and codes to try to figure out what genre of book Harold is in. Ironically, it is the writing expert’s advice that leads the plot towards formula. Encouraging Harold to willfully change the course of his tragedy, Hilbert suggests that he try to initiate that sturdiest of all clichés, the unlikely romance. Ana fits the bill perfectly, since her coffee shop is currently under audit by Harold himself.
|..It’s me, Margaret.”|
Gyllenhaal plays Ana with equal parts sass and humility, but maybe she is so luminous in this movie because Ferrell is so dull. This is by design, of course. Ferrell has enough natural charm to make you care about a very boring character. If Harold’s meager life is little more than the creation of an author, then his free will is almost non-existent too. Bypassing any too-serious comment on what stories reveal about their authors, the film becomes a quest for Harold to exercise his new-found resolve.
Queen Latifah is wasted in a thankless role as Thompson’s assistant, there to force Eiffel through her writer’s block to meet a deadline. It seems like much of her performance must have ended up on the cutting room floor.
Hoffman is in great comic form like he was in “I Heart Huckabees,” which was a more confusing, anarchic version of this movie. Hilbert is also invested with deity-like control over Harold, a feature hilariously echoed by his night job as a lifeguard at a pool populated almost entirely by senior citizens. One shot even has him sitting in his lifeguard chair, a God-like figure whose head we cannot see, framed from his knees and below, with a very tall Ferrell looking up at him.
The logic behind “Stranger Than Fiction” is tenuous at best, but that is not enough to derail the movie. Like he did in “Finding Neverland,” Forster stages the scenes depicting the writer’s creative process in an alarmingly original fashion, weaving real-life characters into visual representations of Eiffel’s story. When those minor characters become a major part of Harold’s life, we get a little peek behind the scenes of the writing process.
Although it may be a standard love story, “Stranger Than Fiction” has enough new takes on old themes to feel fresh, and the actors who were given a chance acquit themselves well. Ferrell proves again that he can handle a subtler, drier kind of humor than he displays in gangbusters comedies like “Talladega Nights.”