What happens when fiction attacks? A huge exclamation point flattens poor Will Ferrell in the clever ad art, but this parlor-trick script actually poses a subtly different question. What kind of authenticity can you claim as a human when you suddenly start hearing narration while brushing your teeth? Swiss director Marc Forster flirts with an answer in Stranger Than Fiction, sending his IRS agent hero to battle not his inner demons but the external authorial voice. Ferrell’s squinty-eyed geek, who routinely quantifies reality (his favorite word is “integer”), unexpectedly discovers that he’s the made-up protagonist in a famous author’s novel and hence imminently facing a speedy demise. When he resists, as he must, it’s as if Madame Bovary spits out the arsenic administered by Flaubert or Hamlet turns his rapier on Shakespeare.
Scrupulously respecting the film’s premise, Ferrell buries his broad Talladega Nights persona, never overplaying or even smiling, much less winking at his fans. Still, his straight-arrow character, defined solely by his obsessive behavior, seems not much of a real person in the first place, even while he busily zips between comic and tragic situations (keeping a tally to judge whether his nonpareil predicament will more likely merit the smiling mask or the frowning one).
Impelled to find a way to tear through the narrative curtain, he gets practical advice (to start disturbing the plot) from a literary theory professor and renowned authority on the rhetorical device “Little did he know…” As drolly played by Dustin Hoffman, the man is a model of cool academic detachment (though he inexplicably keeps a human skeleton propped up in his office, perhaps the bare bones of a graduate student worn down by deconstructing Derrida and Baudrillard). As the conflicted author, a twitchy and disheveled Emma Thompson embodies all the chain-smoking anguish of writer’s block, while Queen Latifah stands guard over her as a publisher’s watchdog sent to speed up the writing process, a thankless role that squanders her warmth.
After propounding the unsettling thought that identity can be an illusion, the script then hastily rushes to reassure us that the hero needs only to spice his antiseptic existence with some tame non-conformism. In other words, move in with a friend, learn to pick out tunes on the guitar, and let up on the number-crunching (as always, the movies treat scientific accuracy as a disastrous sign of impersonality). Supplying the dollop of true love that helps the metafiction go down more smoothly, tattooed counterculture baker Maggie Gyllenhaal arrives to loosen him up, feeding him milk and fresh cookies even as she protests corporate bailouts and swollen defense budgets by withholding a percentage of her tax bill (the movie remains silent about how long her business would last against the full force of the IRS). Ironically, the film’s best moments—the considerable romantic intimacy generated when Ferrell and Gyllenhaal nuzzle on her living room sofa—don’t derive from the high concept.
Opening with a shot from deep inside Ferrell’s mouth, Forster and his longtime cameraman Roberto Schaefer try various quirky visual ideas, tricking out the hero’s numerical obsession with displays of graphic lettering that should pay royalties to Fight Club’s Ikea sequence. They also choose rarely-seen Chicago locations for a distinctive look, but their wittiest success comes with hero and heroine seated on opposite sides of the join on an articulated bus, experiencing the awkward spatial changes when passengers shift apart or lurch closer as the vehicle’s segments round corners, all bearing faint reverberations from Jacques Tati’s Playtime.
If the Charlie Kaufman-like writing theme suggests Adaptation, Zach Helm’s script really says little about authorship or form, settling for positing rather than explaining a capricious universe where a giant steam-shovel can bite out one’s living room. This certainly counts as director Forster’s best work yet, as he deftly achieves and sustains all the fanciful notions with a much lighter hand than he used in Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland, but in the end Stranger Than Fiction suggests far too many other films for its own good.