"Stranger Than Fiction": The quiet side of Will Ferrell is very nice

Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is an IRS agent whose favorite word is "integer" and whose apartment is as bare and lifeless as a hotel room. His life is a model of buttoned-down sameness, until one day he hears a voice in his head. It's female, British-accented and briskly ironic, and it's narrating his life. "It's telling me what I've already done. Accurately, and with a better vocabulary," he tells a shrink, with understandable agitation. (Because the voice is Emma Thompson's, the effect on the audience is even more unnerving; it's as if the poor fellow's life is suddenly being dictated by Elinor Dashwood or Nanny McPhee.)

Thus begins the enticing, inside-out world of "Stranger Than Fiction," which poses an irresistible question: What do you do when you suddenly realize that you're a fictional character, created by a novelist (played, with neurotic nuance, by Thompson) who may well wish to kill you off? First-time screenwriter Zach Helm, dancing in the footsteps of Charlie Kaufman ("Adaptation"), has crafted a comedy both funny and cerebral, wickedly smart and yet warmhearted. And director Marc Forster, whose career reads like a zigzag tour through genres ("Monster's Ball," "Finding Neverland"), finds an agreeable groove, letting the story's essential sweetness shine through. This is a movie that feels written, not assembled; its voice is distinctive, and you never know quite where it's going.

That said, "Stranger than Fiction" isn't for everyone; it requires (like Kaufman's screenplays) a fair bit of concentration as its many layers are revealed, and a tolerance for the kind of high concept that some call whimsy and some call contrivance. But the film's saving grace is its soft center, like the cookies baked by pastry chef Ana (a warmly flirtatious Maggie Gyllenhaal) that raise Harold's spirits. Near the end, the narrator describes how some "things we love and need," like cookies and hugs and guitars and fiction, give our lives grace; it's a genuinely touching passage, bringing us into the movie and sweeping it into a different, generous realm.

Just as "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" did for Jim Carrey, "Stranger Than Fiction" reveals the quiet side of Will Ferrell: As Harold, he keeps his face carefully still, resisting every opportunity for mugging. As his plight is gradually revealed, he becomes increasingly animated, seeking the help of a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman) and falling unexpectedly for the winsome Ana. It would seem an actor's nightmare to have one's every move narrated by Thompson (the performance needs to live up to the voice-over, and the voice-over is very entertaining indeed), but Ferrell pulls it off. In his good-boy red sweater — often the only touch of vivid color on the screen — he's an oddball hero, and you root for him.

The film's minimalist design, with unbreakingly gray IRS offices and near-empty rooms, keep the focus where it belongs: on the words. "Stranger Than Fiction" is both about a novel and like a novel; you eagerly await the turning of the pages.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Movie review 3.5 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"Stranger Than Fiction," with Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Queen Latifah. Directed by Marc Forster, from a screenplay by Zach Helm. 105 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, sexuality, brief language and nudity. Several theaters.