The movie Stranger Than Fiction reminded me a lot of a book I read a couple of years ago, Typewriter in the Sky. I no longer have the book, because during a major winnowing of the household bookshelves I decided I didn't want to own anything written by L. Ron Hubbard. Typewriter in the Sky was written in 1940, before Hubbard got interested in, er, promoting his lifestyle regimens, and it's an exciting work of pulp fiction with a very meta twist. A hack writer is hard at work finishing his latest saga about swashbuckling pirates, and suddenly one of his good friends finds himself swept off into the landscape of the novel, transformed into one of the characters, and facing the strong possibility of impending death. The character, who knows whose novel he's stuck inside, and the writer, who has no idea that the character is his real-life friend, battle for the upper hand in the resolution of the novel being written.
Stranger Than Fiction is a much more sedate tale, set in contemporary times, but with some strikingly similar plot elements. Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), an IRS auditor with one of the most boring, routine lives ever, suddenly starts hearing this female voice narrating his life ... and predicting his imminent death. He's completely at a loss for how to handle the situation, and ultimately consults a literature professor, Professor Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman). Meanwhile, the writer whose voice Harold has been hearing in his head, Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), is going through a horrendous bout of writer's block: She cannot determine how she should kill her latest novel's protagonist, Harold Crick. And we can see that everything she types about the character on her charmingly old-fashioned typewriter is controlling what happens to the real-life Harold.
Obviously you have to contribute a sizeable suspension of disbelief in order to enjoy the fantasy world of Stranger Than Fiction. However, the rules of that fantasy world are often poorly defined, making it difficult to maintain that state of suspension. The movie isn't clear on whether Harold existed in the world before he was written by Kay Eiffel -- did she will him into existence, or did she suddenly develop some supernatural connection with and power over a normal human being? Kay Eiffel gets inspiration for her character's deaths by imagining her own, which we see happening onscreen before we realize they're only in her mind. Therefore, we're predisposed to disbelieve or harbor skepticism over other significant events that subsequently occur, which weakens the story overall.
I managed to buy the movie's premise up until a point. I had trouble accepting that Kay Eiffel's book, the one in which Harold Crick is a character, is this amazing masterpiece of literature. The snippets of the book that we hear in voiceover are remarkably mundane and sound like a knockoff of Helen Fielding or Nick Hornby -- entertaining, but not a serious work of literature. (Actually, I would have preferred Fielding or Hornby's prose -- I had the feeling I'd find Eiffel's book trite and annoying.) The film was unable to convince me that the novel was all that wonderful and important, and as a result, the decisions the characters made based on that assumption seemed false and even a little ridiculous. After a promising start, the movie fell into standard storylines about character growth and change, and the ending fell flat and wasn't as innovative as I would have liked.
Fortunately, the actors in Stranger Than Fiction more than make up for these weaknesses. Will Ferrell manages to play an unassuming character without going overboard. Emma Thompson is apparently channeling Peter O'Toole (it was uncanny, truly) but it worked. Dustin Hoffman was delightful as the literature professor who reads trash fiction while lifeguarding at the college pool. Sadly, Queen Latifah, as Kay's assistant, didn't get nearly enough to do; it was a role anyone could have played. Maggie Gyllenhaal, as the romantic interest that Eiffel intends to write for Harold Crick, is appropriately cute in a storyline that unfortunately doesn't call for her to be much more.
Although the storyline falls short, individual scenes are often hilarious. The bit in which Professor Hilbert hears the phrase "Little did he know," is priceless, and you should keep an eye on Hilbert's coffee consumption habits, which had me practically in tears from laughing. Harold's astronaut-obsessed co-worker also gets some great lines. And I enjoyed watching Kay Eiffel research and plot different death-scene possibilities. On the other hand, I didn't like the weird computer-like visuals that displayed whenever Harold started obsessing over numbers and statistics. The direction by Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Monster's Ball) helped keep the film's whimsical elements restrained, so the comic moments can truly shine. It's a shame that Stranger Than Fiction doesn't quite sustain its premise, but it's so entertaining that you might not even notice.