Beneath the Charlie Kaufman-lite surface of Stranger Than Fiction lies a pair of compelling stories, one of which is clear to the eye and one of which is not. With only one of them in mind you will most certainly enjoy the film, which itself is a wonderfully astute, sincere and accessible piece of grown-up entertainment, the kind of which has been sorely lacking all season long. Only when you come to discover the other, however, will you catch its third dimension and truly come to appreciate its truthful, direct observations on modern life.

The visible story regards the plight of Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), a buttoned-up, highly symmetrical human being who works, very appropriately, as an auditor for the Internal Revenue Service. Through visual and narrative cues we learn that Harold keeps a tight rein on everything in his life, from the number of brushstrokes he uses while brushing his teeth, to the single Windsor knot on his tie and the precise time he walks onto the arriving bus every morning. He’s automatic when it comes to doing otherwise difficult multiplication in his head. Even when Harold wakes up one day to find his life being narrated by an unseen voice (which he mentions to a psychiatrist “has a better vocabulary” than he), he initially seems more genuinely puzzled than just plain freaked out. 

Across town, reclusive, chain-smoking author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) finds herself failing in efforts to fend off a monster case of writer’s block. So bad, in fact, that her publisher has sent along an assistant (Queen Latifah) to keep tabs of the situation, who glibly mentions that she’s never failed in an assignment to help an author finish a book. Eiffel has been stifled in her attempts to find a manner in which to kill off her protagonist, her literary signature, attempting to find inspiration by hanging out on roofs, lingering along canals near bridges and hanging around hospitals, to no avail.

Harold, meanwhile, employs the assistance of professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), who takes up his case only when Harold mentions that the unseen voice following him around used the phrase “for all he knows,” which implies the presence of a third-person omniscient, or a storyteller. They set out to determine whether the story that Harold is living is a comedy or a tragedy, which comes quickly to a head when Harold finds himself in the most unusual of situations, falling for an auditee, free-spirited baker Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), visibly and philosophically his complete opposite.

This is the setup for a sweet, charming trifle of a movie, with a dash of quirk included to keep things from falling into a conventional groove. The inherently curious, though, will find a deeper and more satisfying subtext waiting to be uncorked.

Emma Thompson, playing Karen, yet another author who bears even the slightest resemblance to J.D. Salinger (stick the words “reclusive” and “author” in the same sentence and you’re bound to think the same thing every time), very nimbly keeps her portrayal from descending into parody. You aren’t going to see her character go all Sean Connery and start spouting modernist silliness like, “you’re the man now, dawg.” Whether you are more inclined to create art or to consume art is irrelevant; either way you feel for her plight as the creator of her own work, and that her inability to resolve the conflict facing her eats away at her emotionally, much like a more conventional conflict would eat away at someone in a more conventional line of work. Like Harold Crick. Or Ana Pascal, for whom Harold is the conflict. We see it in Karen’s face, with the bags under her eyes and the perpetually panicked expression on her face, and her neurotic manner of smothering her cigarettes in a napkin. Which, as much as she smokes, happens a lot.

Will Ferrell also engages us as Harold, but from the other direction. He’s a cipher, an exaggerated everyman, a caricature of the 21st Century servant. Reliable to a fault, but also as spontaneous as a doorstop. His only friend, Dave (Tony Hale, whom many will recognize from his role as bespectacled brother Buster Bluth of the late Arrested Development), is a co-worker, albeit one who takes him in after an unusual accident displaces Harold from his own apartment. Harold is jarred from his repetitive, run-of-the-mill existence by the unseen voice, a phenomenon that forces him to resort to answers outside his regimented, systematic existence. Ferrell is refreshing here, being that he finally doesn’t seem to be playing Will Ferrell playing someone else. He’s unconventionally handsome, with a built-in awkward charm that may help him gravitate toward more roles like this in the future.

Harold’s relational conundrum and general confusion may be the audience’s surface connection for a large part of the film, but in the end it is Karen’s struggle as the author that embodies the artist’s constant battle to create something that is both artistically honest and commercially viable. Everyone wants their efforts to be recognized, and artists are especially vulnerable to getting hung up when they realize that their artistic vision may have to be compromised in order to be seen. In this case, her solution not only involves wriggling out of her own quandary, but it is also paramount in bringing Harold’s journey to fruition. 

Stranger Than Fiction is a warm, crisply written movie that thankfully wastes very little of its potential, thanks in large part to a capable and very entertaining cast that are just eating this high concept piece up. Screenwriter Zach Helm, with his first feature film script, and Director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland)wind up the cast and just let them go to town. It works equally well on multiple levels, so regardless of your emotional investment you will be rewarded. It’s funny, it’s mature, and it knows that the most honest brand of comedy is that which is based in real life.

Directed by: Marc Forster
Cast: Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Queen Latifah
Distributed by: Sony Pictures
Runtime: 113 minutes