Stranger Than Fiction (Columbia Pictures) is a maddening contraption, a high-concept story so overwrought and overthought that you want to thwack at it like a piñata to get at the sweet romantic comedy inside. This Will Ferrell/Maggie Gyllenhaal love story, narrated by Emma Thompson in a hyperself-conscious framing device, is the latest entry in what has become a comedy subgenre: ersatz Charlie Kaufman. Not that being influenced by the lyrically nutty screenwriter of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a bad thing, necessarily. Last summer's Click, with Adam Sandler as a suburban dad manipulating his life via a remote-control device, turned a Kaufman-esque premise into a touching, if formulaic, comedy. It's just that only Charlie Kaufman can really succeed at something as weird as being Charlie Kaufman (and sometimes, as with Adaptation, even he can't completely pull it off). Like its hero Harold Crick (Ferrell), Stranger Than Fiction, directed by Marc Forster and written by first-time scriptwriter Zach Helm, seems to suffer from low self-esteem. Why can't this movie see that it doesn't need a hulking meta-narrative apparatus to make us care about its story? It had us at hello—or would have, if not for the excess of high-concept trickery.
Harold Crick is an IRS agent in Chicago. You know who Harold is: He's Walter Mitty, C.C. Baxter, the man in the gray flannel suit. He's a straight-arrow company man who counts his toothbrush strokes and turns in at precisely 11:13 every night. Harold is so obsessive-compulsive that when he scans a room, he sees graphs and charts hovering in the air around him, measuring and quantifying everything in sight. But one ordinary Wednesday, something strange happens: In Harold's head, he starts to hear a British female voice that narrates each transcendently boring moment of his life from a third-person, limited-omniscient point of view. And that very day, of course, is when everything stops being boring.
Auditing Ana Pascal (Gyllenhaal), a leftist baker who's defaulted on her taxes as a form of political protest, Harold loses focus as his internal narrator points out that Ana's lanky, tattooed body is sexy as hell. (I couldn't agree more: Gyllenhaal, who's ubiquitous on movie screens this year, has never looked better.) As he files away manila folders at work, the novelist within compares the sound of shuffling paper to the scraping of ocean waves on sand. Driven by this constant nattering inside his skull, Harold seeks out a shrink (Linda Hunt), who diagnoses him with schizophrenia. When he refuses treatment, she refers him, inexplicably, to an eccentric literature professor—Dustin Hoffman, looser and funnier than ever.
Meanwhile, the narrator herself emerges as a character in a separate storyline: She's Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a reclusive, chain-smoking novelist who's stuck on the ending for her latest book. So stuck, in fact, that her publisher sends in an assistant, Penny (Queen Latifah), who promises the tortured writer that she'll be available 24/7 to inspire, chide, and shame her into finishing the novel. (I spaced on the rest of that scene due to a brief daydreaming session spent wondering: Has such a service ever been offered in the history of book publishing? And would any writer actually permit it?)
It's when we realize that Harold Crick is the protagonist in Karen's novel-in-progress that the story-within-a-story structure gets tricky. This is a clever and ambitious premise, but one that requires careful execution. Anytime a movie posits a world with its own narrative laws, it had better be pretty secure about how those laws work. If Harold is a fictional being who exists only in the universe of Karen's book, what was his existential status prior to when she began this particular novel? Is he a real person who was born, grew up, and got a job at the IRS, or did he only begin to live when she began to write him? Has Karen always had the ability to create characters who exist outside the work, or did it just start with this novel, and if so, why?
At one point, Karen agonizes to Penny about her tradition of always killing off the main characters in her books: "I've written eight novels," she says. "Have I committed murder eight times?" Well, has she? The movie never decides. Call me a nitpicker, but asking these procedural questions about the script's internal logic seems key to making sense of the ending. I won't give that away, of course, but you've probably already gathered that it involves a particularly stark staging of the art-versus-life dilemma.
In the film's moving middle act, Harold decides, at Ana's urging, to become the person he's always wanted to be, the hero of his own life. He leaves his bachelor apartment to move in with his sweet, nerdy workmate Dave, played by Tony Hale (to those of us still in mourning for Arrested Development, that would be Buster Bluth without the hook-hand). Harold also buys an electric guitar and tentatively teaches himself to play it, culminating in an amateur performance of a punk song that's a shoo-in for this year's Best Pop Cover by a Comic Actor (the prize Bill Murray took in 2004 for his karaoke number in Lost in Translation). This role is for Will Ferrell what the lead in Eternal Sunshineof the Spotless Mind was for Jim Carrey: a chance to dial back the comic shtick and play a quiet, reserved schlemiel who blossoms under the tutelage of a kooky sweetheart. Stranger Than Fiction is no Eternal Sunshine. But if you can look past its clunky attempt to be exactly that, there's great pleasure in watching Ferrell, like Harold, turn into someone you never knew he could be.