Marc Forster's "Stranger Than Fiction" ponders some of the biggest questions in the universe: Do we have the means to change the script of our lives? Or are we simply puppets of fate, our days on this earth arranged in some foreordained pattern that we're powerless to change?
Those are big questions, all right; they're also, unfortunately, an invitation to self-consciousness, and Forster -- director of "Monster's Ball" and "Finding Neverland" -- can't resist the dance. This is essentially a sweet-natured fable, a love story between two unlikely players, the sort of thing that shouldn't grate on anyone's nerves. And bits and pieces of it are gently entertaining, particularly when the performers relax into the groove of their roles. But "Stranger Than Fiction" works so hard at being weird that the whirring of its gears drowns out the beating of its heart. This is one of those dread movies that "plays" with narrative, à la "Adaptation," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and that recent, wearisome corkscrew-curl of a movie "The Science of Sleep," as if straightforward, unvarnished storytelling were a dying art in need of being glammed up to survive. You can just imagine some studio head selling "Stranger Than Fiction" in a meeting with the chipper adjective "Quirky!" -- and that one word, plus the essential exclamation mark, says it all.
Our guide on this journey to the center of the mind is purposefully bland IRS accountant Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), a straight-arrow guy whose life is so precisely ordered that he brushes his teeth exactly the same way, with the same number of brush strokes, every day. He clings to his beloved habits out of a combination of fear and simple lack of imagination, not even venturing to ask, as he wanders into middle age, the standard J. Alfred Prufrock questions: He wouldn't dare eat a peach (the pit might be dangerous), and wearing his trousers rolled would certainly be asking for trouble (not to mention that it just looks messy).
But one day, Harold hears a woman's voice in his bathroom, narrating his life even as he's living it. With the help of theory-spewing literary scholar professor Jules Hilburt (Dustin Hoffman), Harold learns that the voice belongs to a best-selling novelist, Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), who's known for killing off her characters at the end of each book. Harold may be next, which poses a problem for many reasons, not least of which is that after years of being alone, he's finally falling in love: The object of his affection is madcap counterculture bakery owner Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who teaches him how to Live, capital L, by feeding him homemade cookies.
As a template for exploring big questions, that setup could probably work as well as any other. But "Stranger Than Fiction" -- the script is by relative newcomer Zach Helm -- really just rolls those big questions in warm fuzzies; by the end, they're just inedible coconut balls. This is one of those "brain-teaser" movies that assumes our brains lie dormant and sluggish unless they're teased: We need puzzles and narrative mazes to goad them into activity; the pleasure of watching thinking, breathing characters could never be enough.
The Quirky! complexity of the story makes the actors' jobs here harder than they should be. Ferrell attempts to carry the movie, as lightly as possible, on his shoulders, and sometimes he manages. And he puts that slightly cross-eyed, perpetually flummoxed look to good use here, making us feel some sympathy for Harold even when he's being a complete tool.
Gyllenhaal's Ana is somewhat more trying -- a little bit of that downtown free-spirit, leg-warmers-and-nubbly-scarf life-force acting goes a long way -- but some of her quieter scenes with Ferrell do have a pleasing glow. Thompson's Eiffel, on the surface the most unlikable character (suffering from writer's block, she shuffles down the halls of a hospital's critical ward, looking for people who are really and truly dying as inspiration for her work), is the most fun to watch: Thompson has a flinty, sinister edge that she doesn't always get to show off. And Hoffman, as the scattered, self-centered literary type, may be the movie's most honest creation: He's as self-obsessed as the movie is.
But the fact that the wonderful Queen Latifah is wasted, cast as the tough-talking, sassy black sidekick, should tell you something: This is a movie with so much blind faith in its unconventionality that it can't see how hidebound it really is. There are flashes in "Stranger Than Fiction" that suggest how much better it could have been: In the love scenes in particular, you can catch whiffs of the wistful sweetness Forster, Helm and the actors were going for. But the picture is an overworked trifle: There's so much going on in it that it becomes hard to care about anything that's going on in it.
The story in "Stranger Than Fiction" is stranger than fiction. But what good is it if it's unreadable?