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 loser. Call it a “nice” movie—a vehicle designed to 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. 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.
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. 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 Marc Forster’s movie flies off into metafictional fancy, isn’t the comic haymaker it should be, but it’s enough to send Harold into a panicky tailspin, which becomes a nosedive after he flubs an audit meeting with a 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 zigzagging 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. I don’t believe that of all the songs he could use to woo the baker, the taxman would dust off Wreckless Eric’s “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. And 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. These performances succeed where Harold fails: gaining a life independent of their author.