'Stranger Than Fiction' is too by the book

Movies with terrific ideas are a rare commodity in Hollywood. The idea behind "Stranger Than Fiction" is the kind of Charlie Kaufmanesque conceit that sounds a lot better than the way it's played out.

Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, a robotic IRS agent who discovers that he's hearing a voice in his head, the voice of an uppercrust British female, and that she is narrating every moment of his life.

Since no one else can hear her, Harold for a time thinks he's going crazy, especially when the voice speaks of his imminent death. He seeks out a psychiatrist (Linda Hunt) who refers him to, of all things, a literary theorist, Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman). Harold is encouraged to change the script of his life and turn tragedy into comedy. (This business of rewriting one's life script could be intended as a parody of self-help guru-speak, except it's not played for laughs.)

Crick feels as though he's a character in his own story, but it soon becomes clear that the story actually belongs to Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a famously dreary writer who has been unable for 10 years to complete her new novel about a character named Harold Crick. The bulk of the movie is taken up with Harold's attempts to contact the reclusive author and save himself.

Is this a comedy? Not exactly. The screenplay here, by Zach Helm, is more coy than clever. Helm and his director, Marc Forster, are too enamored with the film's tricky conceit to actually flesh it out. It would have been more interesting and fun, for example, if we had a better idea of the kind of novel Kay is writing. But she is steadfastly generic – a tortured genius type.

Despite his sporadic attempts to breathe some life into Harold, Ferrell is generic as well. A morose neat freak who times his days down to the millisecond, Harold never really comes to life even when we are supposed to think he does.

He falls for Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a rebellious pastry chef he's auditing, and, with her prodding, becomes at best a reasonable facsimile of a human being.

Ana is a world-weary free spirit who doesn't believe in paying taxes to support bad government, and at first she's so abrasive that we can only assume she will eventually melt. But it's Harold who does the melting. The later scenes between Harold and Ana, like the one where they share milk and cookies, are sensitively played. Gyllenhaal manages to make Ana increasingly sympathetic without defusing her contrarian spirit.

Ferrell probably thinks he's being more of an artist in this film than he is in his "Anchorman"/SNL mode. He couldn't be more mistaken. If he wants to play Hamlet, then he should play Hamlet, and not this hollow man posing as Everyman. Like Jim Carrey, Ferrell seems to think that the way to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor is to drain himself of everything that audiences love about him.

Ferrell should take a tip from Dustin Hoffman, who, after years of strutting as a leading man, has settled comfortably – avidly – into character parts. Hoffman seems rejuvenated because he no longer needs to shoulder an entire movie. Ferrell, by contrast, looks depleted carrying this one. Grade: B–

Rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, sexuality, brief language, and nudity.

Sex/Nudity: 5 scenes, including implied sex. Violence: 2 scenes. Profanity: 18 instances, including at least one harsh expression. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 2 scenes with drinking, 4 with smoking.

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