After the trifecta of suck comprised of “Bewitched,” “Kicking and Screaming,” and “Talladega Nights,” I was more or less ready to write off Will Ferrell. Overexposure and an overabundance of his trademark shtick had worn me down to the point that “kicking and screaming” would be the only way you could get me into another of his movies.
But in “Stranger Than Fiction,” Ferrell calls forth a side of his personality we haven’t really seen before, and it’s a welcome change. As senior IRS agent Harold Crick, Ferrell is passive and reserved to the point of near-somnambulism. Crick’s mild OCD fits in perfectly with his choice of careers, and his self-imposed solitude doesn’t appear to bother him much. He’s the living opposite of the Socratic ideal, going through life on autopilot with little or no thought about the Big Picture.
All this changes when a disembodied voice starts offering real-time voiceover narration only Harold can hear. The voice describes his life as it happens, only – as Harold notes – with a better vocabulary.
The voice belongs to reclusive author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson). Karen has been working on the same book, about the life of one Harold Crick, for ten years, though a severe case of writer’s block is preventing her from completing the novel. Specifically, she can’t figure out how to kill him. The problem has progressed to the point where her publishers hire an assistant (Queen Latifah) to get her back on track. Unfortunately for Harold, the voice in his head begins speaking of his “imminent death,” and he seeks out the services of a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman), who attempts to determine what sort of story Harold is living out.
I have been accused, on more than one occasion, of reacting with knee-jerking contempt to any displays of sentimentality in film, and to some extent these accusations are on target. Generally, I resent such scenes when they come across as forced or insincere (in other words, most of them), but I didn’t get that feeling from “Stranger Than Fiction.” Ferrell is surprisingly naturalistic and refreshingly subdued. Sure, he’s more a caricature than a fully fleshed out person, but he reacts to his increasingly unbelievable situation with unexpected…believability.
Then again, I could be cutting the film more slack than it deserves for other reasons. I am hugely infatuated with both Emma Thompson and Maggie Gyllenhaal (playing a baker Crick audits and eventually falls in love with), for example, and one of my all-time favorite songs (“That’s Entertainment” by The Jam) plays at one point. And the movie does have its flaws: for such a supposedly important author, Eiffel’s work sounds like it has more in common with Oprah’s Book Club than Saul Bellow, those two boobs from the Sonic Drive-Thru commercials are inexplicably cast as co-workers (perhaps to contribute to the entire atmosphere of unreality), and the whole thing plays like Charlie Kaufman Lite…blurring the lines of reality and unreality, but without the messy cynicism.
Ah, who cares? I liked it. “Stranger Than Fiction” is an oddly sweet little tale, and easily Ferrell’s most enjoyable movie in recent memory. And even though his onscreen chemistry with Gyllenhaal fills me with murderous rage, this film goes a long way towards erasing the memory of his more obnoxious roles.
Until “Blades of Glory” comes out, that is.