Stranger Than Fiction

Many things stand out about “Stranger Than Fiction,” so I’ll first mention one that may not be as readily apparent as the others: Every character in the movie is smart. This is a rare treat in 2006, when the jackassification of American cinema is nearly complete and when comedies about stupid people comprise about 70 percent of all comedies. If we expand the category to include movies where the characters aren’t labeled as stupid but who, based on their actions, clearly ARE stupid, the percentage rises to about 90.

No one is dumb in “Stranger Than Fiction.” Even the ancillary characters are smart and grown-up, and the plot doesn’t rely on people missing the point or jumping to the wrong conclusion or doing any of the other dumb things that drive a lot of plots. The characters are witty in a natural way, not as wise-cracking joke machines but in the way real people are witty.

I appreciate the intelligence and realism particularly because the story itself is decidedly non-real and could very easily have turned into an overdone farce. It involves a dull IRS agent named Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) who starts hearing a voice in his head — the voice of a narrator, specifically, describing his actions as though he were a character in a novel and mentioning to the reader that later in the story, Harold will die.

It’s one thing to have voices in your head telling you to kill people; there’s a name for that (schizophrenia) and it’s often treatable. It’s something else to have a voice that doesn’t give instructions, but simply narrates. When Harold brushes his teeth, the voice says, “Harold brushed his teeth.” “It’s telling me what I’ve already done,” Harold tells a psychiatrist. “Accurately, but with a better vocabulary.”

Harold is a matter-of-fact type, focused on numbers and efficiency and viewing the world as a series of patterns, equations and measurements. (Just for fun, the movie sometimes shows us Harold’s point of view, with labels on everything and the distances between objects marked like a draftsman’s blueprint.) His life is boring, which makes the fact of it being narrated all the more unusual. He does not adjust well to change, and this latest development constitutes a significant shift from the norm. He suspects, as anyone would, that he is either the victim of an elaborate prank, or going crazy.

The voice belongs to Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a writer who is indeed currently working on a novel in which Harold is the main character. When she types something on the page, it happens to Harold. The trouble is, she’s a bit blocked lately, neurotically drinking and chain-smoking as her publisher’s deadline looms ever larger and as she becomes increasingly frustrated with the progress of her novel. An assistant named Penny (Queen Latifah) is sent in to help her (and, probably, to serve as the publisher’s spy), but an assistant is no cure for writer’s block.

Meanwhile, unable to do anything about the narrator in his head, Harold tries to go about his work, which includes auditing a tax-evading baker named Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal) whose attitude toward Harold personally runs hot and cold. Thanks to the narrator in his head, he can sometimes divine which mood she’s in.

He also meets with a scatterbrained literature professor named Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) in the hopes that Hilbert can help him figure out which book he’s a character in (if the book already exists), or which current author is writing him (if the book has yet to be published). This leads to a scene that is both hysterically funny and representative of the film as a whole. Harold is in Prof. Hilbert’s office, and Hilbert is asking him questions about the nature of the narration so far. “Are you the king of anything?” “Do you have magical powers?” Silly questions, sure, but since the answer to both is no, that rules out a huge chunk of existing English literature.

What’s hilarious about the scene is the way it’s played. Ferrell is deadpan, as he is throughout the movie, never giving in to hysteria or mania. He is, of all things, the straight man in this film. That gives Hoffman the opportunity to be the “funny” one in this scene, to clown around and milk the punchlines — but he doesn’t do it. He plays the scene as seriously as Ferrell does. To the characters, this is a real situation that really needs to be dealt with. Think of the many films where “quirky” premises are turned into nothing more than a series of skits, with no honest character development, and you appreciate the sophistication of this one all the more.

But an even better reason for this approach: Treating a “quirky” premise seriously just makes it funnier. The more deadpan Ferrell is, the funnier the scene is. He’s truly doing in this film what many have claimed Jim Carrey was doing in others, and that is suppressing his tendency to be Wild & Crazy and just being a Normal Person. I never really bought it with Carrey, who always seems to have a manic gleam in his eye even when he’s being “serious.” With Ferrell, for the first time, I buy it. He’s genuinely acting here, delivering a funny, soft-hearted performance.

The film is also a bit of a first for director Marc Forster, whose “Monster’s Ball” and “Finding Neverland” (and his little-seen 2005 effort “Stay”) barely hinted at his knack for the smooth, effortless invention and whimsy at the heart of “Stranger Than Fiction.” And the film is in every way a first for the screenwriter, Zach Helm, a playwright making his initial foray into the movie business. (He’s obviously been reading up on his Charlie Kaufman, though. You could watch the brain-twisting “Stranger Than Fiction” and easily assume it comes from the same odd mind as “Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovich.”)

There are some flaws in the film that are minor but worth noting. We must ultimately deal with the fact that Harold doesn’t know how he can be real AND a figure in Karen Eiffel’s novel, and frankly, the movie doesn’t know, either. It sort of ignores the specifics and leaves it at “that’s just how it is, OK?” And if Maggie Gyllenhaal sounds like an unlikely love interest for Will Ferrell, well, she is. It doesn’t appear any more reasonable in the film than it does on paper.

Yet as the movie shifts from the predictable “you don’t appreciate life until you think you’re going to die” angle to more sublime themes, it becomes surprisingly touching. Do we control our own fate? Can we change the outcome of our lives? What constitutes truly “living,” anyway? Never self-consciously wacky or cloyingly sentimental, “Stranger Than Fiction” is instead a breezy, sweet comedy. You walk out of it feeling better about life than you did going in.

B+ (1 hr., 53 min.; PG-13, one F-word, some non-sexual old-man nudity, brief violence.)