EXISTENCE, identity, free will and narrative theory collide in the fanciful comedy "Stranger Than Fiction." Written by Zach Helm and directed by "Finding Neverland's" Marc Forster, the film explores some of the same metaphysical terrain that screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has in "Being John Malkovich" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" but in a slightly more conventional and linear way. In fact, if screenwriting impresario Robert McKee -- whose paradigmatic theories Kaufman lampooned in "Adaptation" -- were to take a stab at rewriting Kaufman, the result might be something like this.
When we meet "Stranger's" sad sack protagonist Harold Crick, he's a man who examines little about his life, let alone grander philosophical questions. His mind is too full of numbers. The numbers that his coworkers at the IRS throw out at him to nimbly multiply and spit out with the efficiency of a calculator, the number of strokes he uses to brush his teeth, the number of steps he takes to reach the bus, etc. Played by the usually manic Will Ferrell, Harold is a buttoned-down tax man for whom a life of quiet desperation would be an improvement. Then one day, he hears The Voice.
It's not an unfriendly voice (it belongs to Emma Thompson), and it narrates the events of Harold's life -- but with a better vocabulary, as he later points out. When he does something, The Voice describes it. When he stops, so does The Voice. This turn of events, which is tied to a somewhat magical wristwatch, jars Harold from his routine existence and stirs him to action.
A refreshingly grown-up comedy, "Stranger" is a charming film that is unafraid to be low-key in ways that studio releases seldom are. A large part of that is due to the willfully gentle performance of Ferrell, who is always eminently more watchable when he plays sweet and childlike -- think "Elf" -- than in his more overbearing roles. Like many clowns, he is seldom more interesting than when he wears the sad face.
Stirred from his near-catatonic way of life by his newfound self-awareness, Harold has sanity-challenging encounters with two therapists -- one of whom (Tom Hulce) thinks Harold needs a hug, while the other diagnoses him as schizophrenic and suggests medication. Even though Harold knows he isn't crazy, he is distressed by the emotions that begin to bubble to the surface, the most vexing of which is his attraction to a bohemian baker named Ana (the always engaging Maggie Gyllenhaal) whom he is auditing because she refuses to pay the portion of her taxes that go toward things like war.
Harold concludes that his problem is less mental than literary and proceeds to visit the delightfully analytical English professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman). A variation on the dim bulb Ferrell has specialized in since his "Saturday Night Live" days, Harold is initially immersed in a "Rain Man"-like fog of obsessive-compulsive behavior. It's a wonder to watch his inhibitions melt away as he pursues a relationship with Ana and, with the help of the puckish Hilbert, works through the literary puzzle his life has become, trying to determine whether it's a comedy or a tragedy. When he helpfully points out that The Voice speaks in the "third-person omniscient," it's a victory for English teachers everywhere.
In a parallel story, we are introduced to a stalled novelist named Karen "Kay" Eiffel (Thompson), who appears to be writing a novel about a character named.... Harold Crick. Just as the persistence of The Voice forces Harold toward an awakening, Kay, abetted by the no-nonsense assistant (Queen Latifah) provided by her publisher, struggles to overcome a decadelong bout of writer's block and discover the perfect way to kill off her main character. Thus Harold is left to face what might be the ultimate existential obstacle: his own mortality.
The film's star-laden ensemble attacks the material with deadpan glee, grounding its quirky characters in the reality of the predicament at hand. Thompson's writer is a neurotic jangle of nerves who spits in a tissue before snuffing out her cigarettes but diligently researches the various ways Harold might meet his maker. Hoffman is the meticulous scholar whose secondary responsibilities include serving as a faculty lifeguard (reading Sue Grafton from his perch above the pool). Gyllenhaal makes civil disobedience seem common-sensical (not to mention sexy).
Clever throughout, "Stranger" will merit year-end awards consideration, especially for writing and acting. It manages to be smart and surprising and provides this season of serious movies with a much-needed shot of whimsy. As technology threatens to limit human contact, it's refreshing to see a film in which the big questions are handled in an entertaining and thoughtful manner that encourages non-electronic interconnectivity. It may not answer any big questions, but it makes considering them more fun.
`Stranger Than Fiction'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some disturbing images, sexuality, brief language and nudity
A Columbia/Sony Pictures release. Director Marc Forster. Writer Zach Helm. Producer Lindsay Doran. Director of photography Roberto Schaefer. Editor Matt Chesse. Production design Kevin Thompson. Costume design Frank Fleming. Music Britt Daniel, Brian Reitzell. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.
In general release.