There's a difference between a great movie and a great date movie, and Stranger than Fiction is more the latter but there's no shame in that. Director Marc Forster (Monsters Ball, Finding Neverland, Stay) has taken a self-conscious attempt to mimic the work of Charlie Kaufman and added grace, wit and style.
Obsessive and solitary tax auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) wakes up one morning to a woman's voice narrating his every action, thought and feeling with alarming accuracy. Questioning his sanity, Harold's carefully calibrated life begins to unravel when the voice says, "little did he know events had been sent in motion that would lead to his imminent death." He becomes convinced he's a character in a novel. Desperate to save himself, Harold recruits a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman) to help him find the author (Emma Thompson) and persuade her to change the ending.
At first it sounds postmodern the relationship between creation and creator, identity as an illusion. But scriptwriter Zach Helm is less concerned with how or why Thompson may end her protagonist's life, and more concerned with what Harold does with the time he has left.
It was a matter of time before Kaufman's meta-narrative style as witnessed in his scripts for Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind became a high-concept gimmick. But Helm's script, though witty and light on its feet, doesn't have the big ideas or caustic insights of either of those films. Harold demonstrates very little existential angst for a guy who may only exist in the mind of a novelist. His struggles with predestination and the authenticity of life are quickly righted with a dash of nonconformity and the love of a good woman in this case, an anarchist baker named Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal).
In particular, Helm seems unable to stick to his premise. Thompson's rich narration plays hide and seek, disappearing for long stretches only to return when the plot needs a little goosing.
Nevertheless, the cast cements the movie's warmth. Ferrell's squinty-eyed take on Harold is surprisingly understated, finding both comedy and sympathy in his two-dimensional character. And his scenes with the always-winning Gyllenhaal give off unexpected sparks of tenderness. Thompson and Hoffman are the old pros, seemingly swapping roles: Thompson is the obsessed, disheveled novelist while Hoffman drolly tackles the thoughtfully subdued academic. Only Queen Latifah is left out in the cold, wasted in a thankless role as the publisher's lackey.
More clever than smart, Forster and company inject Stranger than Fiction with enough charm and quirky imagery to overcome its cinematic pretensions. Think of it as Kaufman-lite.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.