Though he's most often cast in slapstick roles, Will Ferrell is even better at playing the befuddled straight man. In fact, he gives one of his best performances yet in Stranger Than Fiction as Harold Crick, a mild-mannered and math-obsessed IRS agent whose favorite word is "integer."
On paper, this movie comes off like a promising post-modern mindbender, a la Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Crick is brushing his teeth one morning when he begins hearing the voice of a female narrator, Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), who is writing a book in which she plans to kill off his character. But unlike Eternal Sunshine and other Michael Gondry movies, this one doesn't have an intricately woven script worthy of the premise. In fact, the problem with Stranger Than Fiction is that it isn't strange enough. You'll understand what I mean if you
Though Stranger Than Fiction presents an intriguing question—namely, is the narrator controlling Crick's life, or can he change the outcome of her novel?—this question is essentially ignored. And in the end, when you unpeel the flimsy layers of the plot, you'll find that the story doesn't really make much sense.
Yes, it's entertaining to see Ferrell's emotive face react as Thompson narrates his life, as he says, "accurately and in a better vocabulary." But during the long (and less interesting) stretches of plot that lack narration, Ferrell seems free to do his own thing, and his attempts to thwart his impending death don't show up on Thompson's page. For guidance, Crick visits an English professor, well played by Dustin Hoffman, who advises him to figure out whether the story in which he is a character is a comedy or tragedy. Judging from the odd tone of the movie, the actors—including a morose Thompson and Maggie Gyllenhaal doing her usual gape-mouthed spunky thing—can't seem to decide if the movie is supposed to be funny either.