"The thing to determine conclusively is whether you are in a comedy or a tragedy."
Reminiscent of such crowd-pleasing flights of post-modern fancy as The Truman Show and almost anything written by Charlie Kauffman, Stranger Than Fiction is the story of the exceedingly ordinary Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), who suddenly finds himself in an incomprehensible situation. After hearing the voice of a "narrator" commentating on his every move, he comes to realise that he is not, in fact, an everyday slightly compulsive tax-man, but the helpless protagonist of a half-finished novel telling the story of his life. More disturbing still, the novel he's stuck in doesn't seem destined for a happy ending.
The comparisons to Kauffman are inevitable and apt, the difference being that this screenplay by Zach Helm is not quite as bizarre or inventive, but is also a whole lot more likeable and accessible than most of Kauffman's work. While Kauffman's realities are often alienating and discomforting, Harold's dilemma is oddly involving and enjoyable to watch, especially when he enlists a crotchety Literature Professor (Dustin Hoffman, clearly having heaps of fun) to help him solve his dilemma. Emma Thompson's role as Karen Eiffel - the author who unknowingly holds Harold's fate in her words - enhances the lovely mind-tickling tone, as do delightful cameos by Tom Hulce, Linda Hunt and Kristin Chenoweth.
The film does have its flaws: a romantic sub-plot with the always-charming Maggie Gyllenhaal starts full of promise but goes nowhere. Gyllenhaal's character, disarmingly irreverent and appealing while Harold pursues her, disappears almost completely once the relationship is consummated, patronisingly rendering their romance as little more than a "goal" that is of no further interest once it's achieved.
While he occasionally appears to be trying too hard not to be funny, Ferrell creates an affably hapless character in Harold. But with perfect timing and an effortless balance of comedy and tragedy, it is Emma Thompson who is the film's true heart - and in fact its real protagonist. Meanwhile director Marc Foster gets the tone just right and knows when to give the pace a kick with perfectly-executed set-pieces. On the down-side, some quirky visual ideas, which catch the eye and give the film's world an aesthetic identity during the opening sequences, seem to be virtually forgotten by the second act.
As always with these self-reflexive narratives, many fascinating issues - free will, life versus art, the validity of creative process - are thrown into the mix. If his life is being controlled by an absent author, how can Harold be anything other than a passive protagonist in his own life? On the other hand, once she discovers that her chief character is (somehow) a real, breathing human being, how can Eiffel in good conscience write his death, even if changing the ending will mar her masterpiece? Stranger Than Fiction manages to chart a feel-good course, without undermining these complex ideas. None of the questions are answered - and the basic conundrum of how this situation has come about is never explained (or really even questioned) - but that's not the point. The film delivers just enough to leave you walking away thinking about it - and liking it.
3½ (out of 5)
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