It's so confusing when a movie doesn't know whether it's coming or going, sad or funny, life affirming or death embracing. You know the ones—when you're supposed to be laughing at the hero's antics, but there's maudlin music playing in the background? That sums up Will Ferrell's latest vehicle, Stranger Than Fiction—I just kept staring at Ferrell's face waiting for the imminent punchline and never getting it.
Ferrell plays Harold Crick, a bland, wooden-faced IRS auditor who obsessively counts his strides to the bus, his toothbrush strokes, and the tiles in the bathroom (and just in case we forget this sole defining trait, we're reminded of his obsessive-compulsiveness by distracting diagrams plastered over the screen, à la the Ikea scene from Fight Club). But then, inexplicably, Harold begins to hear a narration of his life—a British woman's voice that only he can hear. Harold consults a literary professor (Dustin Hoffman) and they eventually deduce that a renowned author named Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is writing the story of Harold's life. Only Kay doesn't know that Harold Crick is a real person... and she's planning to kill him at the end of her novel.
Cue romantic interest: Harold eventually falls in love with a feisty baker, Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Why, you ask, does a hottie like Ana fall for a boring guy like Harold? Good question, and I, for one, have no answer. The main problem is that Harold lacks any and all lust for life, so there's no reason to root for his burgeoning love life, or even his survival—one actually ends up agreeing with the author, Kay, that Harold probably should die in order to make the end of the book a stronger piece of fiction.
I just kept wishing that Stranger Than Fiction would pick a side of the street to stand on, instead of running back and forth between Charlie Kaufman territory and Sappy Comedy Boulevard. Once all the surface-level meta trappings of this film are taken away, all that's left is a romantic comedy that's light on the romance and on the funny.