Stranger Than Fiction might have coasted on, or alternatively squandered, its gut-bustingly hilarious high concept. It does neither. Instead of enveloping itself in smug self-satisfaction and marveling at its own cleverness, it simply tells two great stories, both profound in their ways, and neither pretentious or turgid. And perhaps most interestingly, the film features a terrific piece of character work by Will Ferrell, who approaches his lead role with admirable restraint, and whose subtler side turns out to be quite an asset.
To avoid the thematic quagmire of trying to rehash Adaptation territory, Stranger Than Fiction mostly punts on issues of authorship and the nature of reality. Rather, it finds meaning in its characters’ search for same, and it is a great testament to debut screenwriter Zach Helm’s simple, rueful characterizations — as well as to the performances by Ferrell and Emma Thompson — that the protagonists gradually fill out despite lacking dimension on paper. And the screenplay is sneaky in the way it takes Emma Thompson’s writer’s-block-afflicted Karen Eiffel from being a plot device to effectively carrying the heart of the film.
And it’s funny. Will Ferrell adapts and grounds the persona that has made him very wealthy — the oblivious, non-sequitur-spouting buffoon — into someone convincingly lonely and despirited, a man nearly mechanized by decades of routine and pointless precision. The brilliance of Ferrell’s performance emerges along with the film’s main gimmick — once he begins inexplicably hearing Karen Eiffel narrating his everyday activities, the actor’s goofy sensibility combines with the moroseness of the character as written to create someone truly lovable, bordering on adorable.
The gimmick itself is milked for laughs, though Helm and director Marc Forster hold back enough that it retains its audacity and doesn’t grow tiresome. Part of the movie’s genius is the matter-of-factness with which the characters treat the notion of an IRS agent suddenly hearing a voice that narrates his life. Schizophrenia is suggested but quickly and explicitly dismissed (“It’s not schizophrenia,” Ferrell’s Harold Crick says firmly), and the literature professor Harold enlists to help him (Dustin Hoffman) seems to take the notion very seriously.
And it is serious, since as Harold quickly learns from the disembodied, English-accented voice, “events have been set in motion” that will bring about his inevitable death, and if that won’t bring about an existential crisis, nothing will. Harold’s subsequent journey of self-discovery covers some familiar ground, but does so with genuine sweetness, and is bolstered by Emma Thompson’s narration, which here provides the film with a substantive assist above and beyond being the central hook. The fulfillment of Harold’s lifelong dream to play the guitar is absolutely perfect, the scene in the music store an awe-inspiring exemplar of voiceover, shot selection and montage.
The ending neatly resolves both character arcs and hits a lovely grace note that sends you out of the theater, to the extent it’s possible, on a wistful high. Stranger Than Fiction aptly handles the collision between Eiffel and the Harold Crick of her imagination, and the point, ultimately, is less in the lessons he learns than in what he teaches her. It’s feel-good for real, uplifting in a meaningful way, and I loved it.