Luigi Pirandello's 1921 masterpiece Six Characters in Search of an Author was one of the first instances of meta-theater, a trend that has rippled out into other media and been especially exploited throughout motion pictures and television in everything from episodes of The Twilight Zone to Charlie Kaufman's meta-meta Adaptation. In these efforts, we get stories about stories and the characters within them, layer upon layer of meaning and self-reference that ultimately attempts to say something about Art itself. Too often these efforts can be dry and emotionless, a sort of philosophical treatise that is intellectually challenging but which fails to touch the heart. Stranger than Fiction plies this same territory with an at times really stupendous sweetness, setting it apart from drier fare that similarly attempts to explicate the relationship between creator and character, art and product.
Stranger than Fiction follows the mundane life of IRS agent Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), who fairly early in the movie becomes aware of a voice (Emma Thompson) narrating such "adventures" of his as how he ties his tie and how many times he brushes each tooth. This of course sets him up as even crazier than most IRS agents (highlighted by two very funny cameos by Linda Hunt and Tom Hulce). Ultimately Crick slowly becomes convinced he's the character in a book which is being written, a book which, in a moment of third person omniscience revealed to Harold, is ultimately going to end with Crick's death. That sets Crick out on a course of rampant self-examination and, not coincidentally, a sort of manic attempt to forestall if not prevent the inevitable. He manages to fall in love with a woman he's auditing (an adorable Maggie Gyllenhaal) while being schooled in literary theory by a learned professor (Dustin Hoffman). All of this plays out against a mirror story of Thompson's character, author Karen Eiffel, who it turns out is suffering from a decade long bout of writer's block, which has more or less kept her from finishing off Crick the character. It turns out Eiffel is renowned for writing beautiful heartfelt novels where the leading characters tragically die.
That's the setup for Stranger than Fiction, and while metaphysically if not meta-filmically it never really makes much sense, it really doesn't have to. This film is a serendipitous excursion into several actors playing against type, chief among them Will Ferrell, who arguably does his finest cinema work ever in an beautifully underplayed and very heartfelt performance as Crick, the sadsack who is struggling against a fate he realizes he can't fully control. Those used to seeing Ferrell in his manic and cartoon-like portrayals in such films as Anchorman may think he has a twin brother with serious acting chops. It's very reminiscent of the transformation another wild and crazy SNL alum, Bill Murray, made several years ago with more serious efforts like Rushmore or even Groundhog Day, which Stranger than Fiction resembles tonally if not subject-wise.
If the film is almost entirely Ferrell's, he's aided immeasurably by a host of fine supporting performances, including a really funny Thompson as the cigarette-addicted, completely neurotic author who spends her days imagining one horrific scenario after another by which she can off her main character. Thompson is, like Ferrell, playing somewhat against type here, with hair askew and a twitchy bird-like set of mannerisms that make Eiffel the epitome of the tortured artiste. Along for the ride is an unexpectedly subdued Queen Latifah as Eiffel's assistant and a nicely underplaying Dustin Hoffman as the professor whose knowledge of literature helps Crick track down clues as to who is writing his story.
The chief supporting performance, however, is Maggie Gyllenhaal, and she proves in this film that she is an actress of unusual intelligence and grace. She makes her baker Ana Pascal equally spunky and vulnerable, and brings a surprising amount of emotional heft to her scenes with Ferrell. The scene in which Gyllenhaal reacts to Ferrell's guitar playing is a marvel of wordless response, with every emotion perfectly indicated without, to use that actorly term, "indication."
In fact, it's the heart of Stranger than Fiction that elevates it above the frankly more intellectually compelling Adaptation, among others of this ilk. There's a human element to this film that is missing in a lot of these "meta" efforts, and that makes all the difference. The audience quickly cares for Ferrell, despite his obsessive compulsive oddities, so that by the time Gyllenhaal enters the picture, there's a wealth of good will that carries the film into its romantic comedy territory with room to spare. Stranger than Fiction never stoops to a cheap laugh, something else that is highly commendable. There are a few laugh out loud moments, but this is really more of a thoughtful enterprise than you might expect going in. Don't worry, though--it's a painless sort of thought-provocation, and one that won't make your head hurt even as it makes your heart swell with some very tender feelings.
Director Marc Forster mounts an impressively fluid production that includes some innovative visual elements, graphic user interfaces (GUIs for short, something that's covered in one of the many extras) that seem to spring from Harold's brain and help him categorize his world into neatly quantifiable units. There are a couple of great gags built into this conceit, so watch for them.
Stranger Than Fiction is a very charming "little" movie wrapped inside an ostensible blockbuster comedy. If you go into this unusual small scale gem with appropriate expectations, you're going to have one of the most pleasant surprises in recent filmgoing memory. And that's something you can count on.