Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) lives every day just like the last, waking up at the same time, brushing his teeth the same number of times, catching the same bus, getting into work as a tax inspector at the same time, and eventually going home at the same time, where he dines alone. This is not really living to his fullest potential, but Harold is too numb in his world to see that until he begins to notice a voice following him around. A voice that sounds as if it is narrating his days and nights and making observations about him - he wishes it would stop, especially when the voice says he will die soon...
Since time immemorial, comedians have wished to prove themselves dramatic actors, and Will Ferrell was no exception as he took this part in Stranger Than Fiction. Just as the similarly successful Jim Carrey had before him, a science fiction, or at least fantasy-tinged story was what attracted him, only where Carrey's The Truman Show proved to be an excellent effort all round, this item fell short of those heights by quite some distance. It sounds like such a clever idea that you could not see why it had not been done before until you actually watched it, and it turned out to be a dog of a contrivance.
This was not Robert Benchley narrating Road to Utopia territory, although there were comedic bits and pieces in Zach Helm's script, but proof that what might have been fine for a quick sketch on television fell apart when stretched to the length of a two hour movie. Too many questions are raised for the story to do justice to, sure we can find out whose voice this is following Harold about, but Helm never got to grips with why this could have been happening, and his attempts to offer this profundity were underwhelming. The voice we find out belongs to a writer called Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), and she's suffering mightily for her art.
So much so that she is almost suicidal with writer's block, and looking like a junkie going cold turkey. It is Harold's life she is inadvertantly writing about, and she plans to kill him off at the end of the novel, if she ever reaches it, leading the hapless IRS man to flounder in the face of this God figure dictating his every move and every try at wriggling out of his fate doesn't help. Eiffel's plan seems to be to offer him a chance at a fulfilling existence, then cruelly take it away just as he's settled, which could be some accusation against the deity who arbitirarily ends lives, or a criticism against authors being too blasé about how they treat their characters. Whichever, the result is irksomely twee.
Not to mention hard to take as a big statement when none of it has been thought out further than "Wouldn't this be cute? Oh, and wouldn't that be sad?" This superficiality would operate as a comfort to those viewers looking for hope that their humdrum days might be brightened up by that chance of beneficial change around the corner, but anyone looking for anything deeper will be let down. Stranger Than Fiction might have been better as an ultra-pretentious European arthouse movie, because here it is watery and undernourishing in spite of a very decent cast. As the love interest who at first rejects and then falls in unlikely love with Harold, Maggie Gyllenhaal looked to have been cast for her way around making her role's baking sound like an inviting advertising voiceover, Dustin Hoffman is twinkly but no more as the professorial help Harold seeks, and Queen Latifah remains surprisingly humourless. The climax which sees Eiffel wonder whether to kill off her protagonist is thin, and the opinion that she will create a masterpiece if she does has no basis anywhere else in the movie. Music by Britt Daniel and Brian Reitzell.