Will Ferrell may not be the kind of comic actor you can imagine moving smoothly into more dramatic roles, but he does a very good job playing Harold Crick in this movie, a gentle comedy that mixes in some wonderful ideas and a few nice twists and turns.
Harold Crick works for the IRS and lives his life in numbers. He always brushes his teeth a set number of times, he can always answer any mathematical problems thrown at him by colleagues and he stays on quite a predictable, some might say boring, schedule. This all changes completely when Harold starts to hear a voice narrating his every move. Harold seeks help from Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), who endeavours to help him find out what kind of story he is being made a part of and how it might end. Meanwhile, Harold also falls for a young woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal) that he's been tasked with auditing and starts to really enjoy his life for the first time ever. This doesn't register with writer Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), who is busy trying to get over her writer's block with the help of an optimistic assistant, Penny Escher (Queen Latifah). Karen doesn't need optimism. She often gets inspiration from sickness, from pain. From death.
Director Marc Forster uses a number of great little tricks to make the most of Zach Helm's smart and gently amusing script. Measurements and numbers appear all over the place in the first section of the movie, allowing viewers to get caught up in the details that govern the life of Harold Crick, the narration provides comedy and also tension and there are many enjoyable callbacks to little details throughout the film.
As already mentioned, Ferrell does well in the lead role, but he has the benefit of a superb supporting cast around him. That's not to sell him short though. His everyman turn here may be the best that he's ever done, in my view, and he makes for a likeable and sympathetic lead. Gyllenhaal is a lot of fun in her role, a woman who wants to choose just where her tax dollars go, and Hoffman is even more enjoyable as he gets to grips with Harold's problem and tries to tick off a variety of literary possibilities. Thompson and Latifah are, for the most part, separate from the central story strand, but they're important characters, of course, and both do very well in their roles.
Overall, Stranger Than Fiction manages to please a lot of different people; those looking for something a bit different from the norm, those looking for something clever, those looking for something with warm humour to it, those looking for something with a bit of romance and those looking for a film that will remind them, funnily enough, of the power of a good book.