Ferrell's aggression is less overt than Carrey's so was Genghis Khan's but it's there in that Bullwinkle frame, behind those boyish features. His supporting role in Old School provided the template for most of his starring vehicles: alpha males with omega self-awareness.
Stranger Than Fiction amplifies the moony softness that Ferrell usually plays against. As Harold Crick, an obsessive-compulsive IRS agent, he's introduced as the kind of benumbed mope who notes the number of steps to the bus stop and follows an exact routine of toothbrush strokes. This we know because a disembodied voice on the soundtrack spells out each of Harold's idiosyncrasies. Then Harold hears the voice, too.
This moment, at which the movie flies off into metafictional fancy, could've been a comic haymaker. It's not director Marc Forster's comedy chops haven't developed much since that sex scene shot through a birdcage in Monster's Ball but it's enough to send Ferrell's Harold into a panicky tailspin, causing him to flub an audit meeting with a rebellious, tattooed baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Meanwhile, as Harold rails against the narrator in his head, reclusive author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) tries to chain-smoke her way out of writer's block as she struggles with her long-delayed novel, which points toward the death of a mope named Harold Crick.
Zach Helm's zigzagging script seems to suggest the work of Charlie Kaufman, whose name has become shorthand for self-reflexive screenwriting gamesmanship. But whereas Kaufman's scripts anchor their craziest conceits in something actual the real John Malkovich, the real Chuck Barris, the real Charlie Kaufman, real anguish and alienation Stranger Than Fiction merely layers whimsy upon whimsy. As written, Harold Crick is no more convincing a human being than he is an IRS agent. Kay Eiffel's writing, supposedly good enough to inspire the career-long devotion of a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman), sounds as dully declamatory as movie-trailer narration.
And yet, when the actors enter Helm's artificial constructs, some small miracle happens. I don't believe that of all the songs he could use to woo the baker, the uptight taxman would dust off Wreckless Eric's wonderful 1978 Stiff single "Whole Wide World." But the way that Ferrell performs it plunking sweetly on two strings of an electric guitar in a smitten trance rivals John Cusack holding aloft his boombox as a grandly goofy romantic gesture. However absurd it seems for the baker, Ana, to fall for her sad-sack auditor, Gyllenhaal redeems the contrivance with dizzy charm and the wide-eyed suggestion of a kind heart. Given the magic timing that his oracular lines require, and get, Hoffman's readings might as well be rabbits snatched from an endlessly capacious hat.
Forster can be a tiresomely literal director, but his eventual muffling of the script's wackiness proves to be a sound choice. If Harold's life is a story, Hoffman's professor wonders, is it a comedy or a tragedy? Forster's direction leaves the question open, and Stranger Than Fiction becomes a fable about a creator's responsibility to his or her creations. The ending Helm devises a witty deflection of cheap third-act irony shows that he has pondered the matter seriously. Playing against type, Will Ferrell can't quite ground this artificially whimsical romantic comedy.