Get up. Go to work. Have another beer. All of us have an interior narrator, exhorting, encouraging, chastising. The difference with Yank Harold Crick (Ferrell) is that his is female, and English, “with a better vocabulary.” It’s an irresistible, if familiar conceit – the kind you automatically associate with a certain Charlie Kaufman, whose career has been founded on straddling the blurred line between reality and artifice. The Adaptation man, though, had nothing to do with Marc Forster’s high-concept comedy, penned by virtual newcomer Zach Helm. For all that, his imaginative fingerprints smear almost every frame of a film that would’ve probably remained in Helm’s head had audiences not been softened up by the brain-stretching likes of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine.
Surprisingly, though, Stranger Than Fiction carries this debt as lightly as it does the darker elements of a story whose hero’s predestined to meet a sticky end. Put a lot of this down to Ferrell, who – in following the good ol’ “funny man goes serious” route already travelled by Carrey, Sandler and Williams – keeps one foot in his now-patented persona (befuddled man-child raging petulantly against a world that stymies him at every turn). Deftly texturing that façade with soulful shades of rueful emotion and boyish playfulness, he makes us genuinely root for his bemused hero, emerging in the latter stages as a character of real tragicomic heft.
The catalyst for this transformation is Emma Thompson’s novelist, an insecure, chain-smoking basket case intent on killing Ferrell’s Ordinary Joe off on the last page of her soon-to-be-completed opus. By having Harold track down his omniscient creator, only to realise that his survival would rob the world of a literary masterpiece, Helm and Forster present us with a fascinating existential conundrum. How much are any of us in control of our lives? Is it better to live for love or perish for art? And is it preferable to know one’s unbending fate or remain in blissful, blinkered ignorance?
Lofty contemplations for what is, in essence, a sugary confection, further sweetened by lively turns from Maggie Gyllenhaal as Ferrell’s feisty girlfriend and Dustin Hoffman, reprising his I Heart Huckabees screwball as a literary theorist who helps Harold unpick his dilemma. Less successful is Queen Latifah, struggling with a weirdly irrelevant role as an emissary from Thompson’s publisher. Or a final reel that, while neat, is perhaps a little too neat (and cosy) for its own good. Still, it’s not often laughs come with so much thought attached, let alone characters who take their names from noted mathematicians (look it up).