By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- Insurance investigators are a dime a dozen in the movies, but you can count the number of heroic IRS agents on the fingers of one hand. There's Tom Hanks in "Catch Me If You Can," Kevin Costner in "The Untouchables"....
No, wait. Hanks was playing a Fed, and I'm not too sure Eliot Ness fits the bill either. Maybe Charles Martin Smith's "Untouchables" accountant character?
Well, anyway, "Stranger Than Fiction's" Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is a walking demonstration of why this is the case. When he looks in the mirror he sees a faceless bureaucrat staring back at him. His job is endlessly repetitive, and he lives to work. Take away his briefcase, his raincoat and the apple he carries to work each day and there wouldn't be much left to talk about.
He's the last guy in the world you would expect to have a vivid imagination -- and he doesn't. So how to explain that very English, very female, very articulate voice in his head?
Harold's personnel manager refers him to a shrink (Linda Hunt), who gently concludes he's exhibiting classic signs of schizophrenia, but agrees that a consultation with a literary expert couldn't hurt. The expert, Professor Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), humors him. If this voice really is Harold's narrator, as he believes, then the thing to do is figure out what manner of story he finds himself in: a tragedy or a comedy.
Of course, Harold doesn't have much of a story yet, so Hilbert encourages him to romance his latest audit (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and hope for a happy ending. Unfortunately, blocked novelist Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) has already announced her character's imminent demise. And she's the voice, the one dictating all this.
Comparisons with Charlie Kaufman's meta-mind-trips "Adaptation" and "Being John Malkovich" are inevitable, but Kaufman didn't invent the idea that life was a great big cosmic joke, and "Stranger Than Fiction" has at least as much in common with "The Truman Show." Just as Truman slowly wises up to the fact that everyone and everything around him is fabricated, Harold comes to the equally painful realization that he's fictional.
Or is he? For all its self-conscious smarts, Zach Helm's screenplay never bothers to resolve its own central conceit. Harold can hear his apparently omniscient narrator, but, inexplicably, she remains oblivious to his protestations -- at least until he finally shows up at the reclusive author's penthouse apartment. So is his fate inked in stone or not? And what about the supporting characters, are their actions also pre-ordained?
Maybe it's expecting too much of a Hollywood confection to take a position on free will, but even in these postmodern times a modicum of coherence would be nice.
This is a more subdued, modulated performance from Ferrell -- sorry, no strip scene -- but the role is a good fit. He's the kind of Everyman we like to pull for, even if Harold is too much of a blank slate to exist independently of his author.
Ferrell's shy underplaying draws out another blissfully wiggy performance from Dustin Hoffman -- an actor for whom life seems to have started all over again at 60 -- and complements Maggie Gyllenhaal's spunky update on Jean Arthur's screwball heroines.
Though director Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball," "Finding Neverland") dresses them up with snazzy visual effects and even throws in a redundant Queen Latifah, the scenes involving Eiffel and her minder are altogether less engaging. Writing is almost as uncinematic as tax auditing, after all. It's a source of mounting irritation that we're repeatedly instructed we're in the presence of A Great Writer (look, she smokes over her typewriter) when the snatches we get to hear are the most egregious corn syrup.
Coincidentally, the meta-narrative in "Stranger Than Fiction" bares striking resemblances to the plot in Forster's last film, the little-seen "Stay," which also began with a character foretelling his own death to a skeptical psychiatrist.
Where that film worked itself up into a bewildering lather of addled existential self-doubt, the new one makes cute with a breezy tone and seize-the-day homilies. Lonely Harold discovers milk and cookies, picks up a guitar and even gets the girl. While this is certainly an improvement across the board, the movie is not half as clever as it would like us to think it is.
Will Ferrell plays a dull IRS agent in "Stranger Than Fiction."