IRS Agent Harold Crick (Ferrell) has no life outside of work. Crunching numbers and ferreting out tax scofflaws is all Harold lives for. Every moment of his life outside the office is carefully planned. But here comes the a-ha moment: one day as Harolds counting the strokes of his toothbrush as it glides over his pearly whites, he hears the voice of a woman narrating his actions.
After determining the voice isnt coming from his toothbrush and confirming no one else can hear it, Harold quickly realizes he needs help but is unsure who to turn to. His co-worker (Tony Hale) doesnt quite get the concept, the companys mental health counselor (Tom Hulce yes, the guy from Amadeus whos been missing from acting for 10 years) is next to useless, and a psychiatrist (Linda Hunt) tries to convince him hes showing the classic symptoms of schizophrenia. Its not until Harold knocks on the door of a literary theorist named Jules Hilbert (Hoffman) that his situation begins to make sense.
Jules and Harold determine that 1) the voice belongs to a writer, and 2) their first step is to figure out whether shes working on a comedy or a tragedy. But even being able to put a name to the voice might not be enough. It seems the writer (Thompson) has decided her Harold Crick character must die, which means the real Harold Crick doesnt have much time left to convince her otherwise. Just when Harold was beginning to break free of his IRS mentality (he falls for a perky tax-dodger played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), it looks like hes reached The End.
Screenwriter Zach Helms intriguing idea is lost within dangling plot threads and incongruent changes in tone. Under Forsters direction (Im a fan of his Finding Neverland, but not a supporter of Stay), Stranger Than Fiction is a film that tries to go in too many different ways stylistically. It cant seem to decide whether it should be taking the subject matter seriously, leaving at least this reviewer feeling lost as to how to respond to what was playing out on the screen.
Will Ferrell plays Harold fairly straight up and fans of Ferrells goofier comedic outings may be surprised by his ability to go deeper. Ferrells absolutely convincing as a man who calculates every move and methodically plans out every minute of his life.
Emma Thompson performs above and beyond the material, making her character the blocked and frustrated writer Kay Eiffel - into something special. Same goes for Dustin Hoffman who, while in just a very small number of scenes, manages to come across as both clever and endearing.
What could have been one of those tantalizingly funny Charlie Kaufman-like films, instead settles for just being heartwarmingly sappy and yes, its true ordinary. Plus, Stranger Than Fiction loses goodwill points for its sloppy ending. Theres just no excuse for how the final act plays out.
While its not the worst comedy of the year, Stranger Than Fiction is definitely one of the years most disappointing.
Stranger Than Fiction was directed by Marc Forster and is rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, sexuality, brief language and nudity.