For all the talk of Stranger Than Fiction's clever Kaufmanisms, the most honest and sincere part of the film is about as clever as fireworks on the 4th of July. Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) sits at a small table in a local bakery and is coaxed into eating a freshly baked cookie with a glass of milk for dipping. There's a simplicity to the scene that speaks directly to the emotional core of the film, and speaks even more of Ferrell's talents as an actor.
Crick makes his money as an IRS auditor, which means his company is enjoyed on the same level as Beelzebub. Recently, Harold has been hearing his life being narrated to him by an omniscient female voice. This voice, amongst other things, has informed him that he will die and there's nothing he can do about it. In hopes of averting this certain fate, Crick befriends a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman, always welcome) and desperately tries to woo Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the baker he is currently auditing. It ends up that the voice belongs to a writer named Karen Eiffel (a solid, suicidal Emma Thompson), who seems to have created Harold for her new book Death and Taxes.
Stranger Than Fiction has a weighty proposal. We are asked to see the creation of a piece of art not from the writer's eyes, but rather from the evolving art's eyes itself. Talk about art imitating life. Is it healthier to be distanced from one's work to the point where killing him off is just work, or should one be so in love with the character that the author considers him real? Should a (seemingly) vacuous life be disposed of if it means something great will come with it? These are hefty themes about authorship and writing that writer Zach Helm actually tries to give a definitive answer to. Of course, these are questions that couldn't be answered by an HBO miniseries, let alone a movie that doesn't touch the 120-minute mark.
Marc Forster, one of the more fascinating commercial directors to arrive in some time, works with some fresh tricks to make Helm's wildly ambitious script seem plausible. Surprisingly, Forster's technique with actors and his stylistic propensity for fluid camerawork create a bubbly atmosphere that is impossible to resist. The occasionally-overbearing ideas about death and writing can be distracting, but they are used to accentuate the heart of the film: the relationship between Ana and Harold.
Gyllenhaal, coming off the melodramatic heft of World Trade Center, has the uncanny ability to shift the tone of her character from voltaic aggression to sublime delicacy without moving the film's own actual tone. She brings an electric current to nearly every scene she's in. Following Jim Carrey's recent transformation, Ferrell dumps the lovable moron shtick for a truly challenging role. Though the themes of Harold's plotline are familiar (live every day to its fullest), Ferrell brings out the joy in Crick with a subtlety that radiates warmth and fragile humor. The scenes between Gyllenhaal and Ferrell are remarkably sweet and ethereal without being overly sentimental. By using complex themes to enunciate the unlikely romance between Crick and Pascal, Forster has found a way to bring out all the quirks and nuances in this love letter wrapped in a Rubik's cube. It feels as natural as milk and cookies.
"Free Bird"? You got it.