A tax man, he doesn’t have many friends – and no girlfriends. But when Harold (Will Ferrell) is assigned to bring to book a bolshy, tax-evading baker, Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal), he falls for her in spite of himself. Alarming, then, with life on the up, to hear Kay (Emma Thompson) narrate his imminent death. Can he avoid it? Can he figure out what’s going on? And can he find the reclusive author and persuade her to change his ending before it’s too late?
Seeking the help of a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman) Harold tries to figure out whether his story is a comedy or a tragedy. And you’ll wonder too – as Stranger than Fiction treads a very fine line between laughs, literature and philosophy. And you’re never sure which way it will go. This is intelligent, chilly film-making that doesn’t skimp on the realities of life, while wrapping us up in a fantasy scenario and a cockle-warming romance.
Emma Thompson is on-the-money as the twitchy, chain-smoking author, who seems as likely to kill herself as her hero. Ferrell convinces in the comedy and wrings enough pathos from his situation to keep you rooting for him. He’s not the greatest of actors, but his interaction with the sparky Maggie Gyllenhaal works a treat. And the script is littered with literate lines, funny and ironic. Delightfully quirky, Stranger than Fiction freshens what could have been formulaic scenes – Gyllenhaal’s character hates Harold to start with and warms to him when he gives her some flours (she’s a baker, you see…). Hoffman also adds to the acting honours in a nuanced, toned-down performance.
Stranger than Fiction is a deft piece of work. While it may conjure similarities with other existential comedies – The Truman Show, Eternal Sunshine – as well as the rash of recent ‘life’s-serious-let’s-laugh-anyway’ comedies like The Weather Man and Shopgirl, it’s resolutely individual. Which is kind of the point. A shade too long, it both requires and repays your attention. But it’s done with a light touch that strokes, pokes and tickles.
Which is to say that this is as close as popcorn cinema gets to an arthouse reflection on death and taxes.