Stranger Than Fiction (12A)

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These days, Hollywood clowns don't need to play Hamlet; they can go on making comedies, but slightly more existential ones. Jim Carrey did it in The Truman Show, Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love; now it's the turn of Will Ferrell, whose quiet, beefy-jowled desperation makes him ideal for his role in Stranger Than Fiction. He plays Harold Crick, a lonely tax official whose grey, routine-ruled existence begs that cruellest of contemporary put-downs, "Get a life." That he lacks a life isn't his fault: nobody's written him one. Harold realises that he's actually a character in a story by novelist Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), whose third-person omniscient narration he starts to hear one morning. Eiffel speaks as you might expect an omniscient narrator to, in bossy, patrician tones, with a touch of Joyce Grenfell. It's precisely her confident superciliousness that Harold objects to as she narrates his tooth-brushing ritual: "How do you know I'm counting brush-strokes?"

Harold's predicament is a neat premise for a film; it was an even neater premise in 1957 when Muriel Spark hit on it for her first novel, The Comforters, in which a character similarly hears voices narrating her every thought and deed. Whether or not screenwriter Zach Helm has read The Comforters, his Karen Eiffel is no Dame Muriel: her tone's far too prissily pedantic, like Enid Blyton trying her hand at a philosophical fable for grown-ups. And no novelist worth her literary salt would ever indulge in such twee anthropomorphism as, "His wristwatch would delight in the feeling of the crisp wind rushing over its face" - let alone stoop to "Little did he know...". In fact, much in the film hinges on the clanking peculiarity of that phrase: Dustin Hoffman's eccentric literary professor Jules Hilbert perks up on hearing it, exclaiming, "I once gave an entire seminar on 'Little did he know'."

Hilbert's one useful observation about the novel of Harold's life is, "Frankly, there doesn't seem to be much to narrate." Harold is as featureless a salaryman nebbish as any in literature since Gogol's The Overcoat, his only real point of interest being that he's a fictional character. But Eiffel and Helm also have one slightly less arcane strand to work with: Harold's fondness for a young woman he's auditing, Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an abrasively radical cake-baker. Her hearty contempt for him, and his eventual wooing of her with Wreckless Eric's "Whole Wide World", signal that Ana and Harold exist not in some fancy piece of postmodern fabulism but in a cheerful old-fashioned romcom.

It might seem snippy to complain about the literary style of a novelist character in what's just an amiable bit of high-concept entertainment. But the question of style becomes everything in the film, since the content's so thin. When Harold meets his firm's in-house shrink, a touchy-feely buffoon, Eiffel gives us a snatch of Harold's internal monologue: "The man was an idiot." Why tell us, when we can see for ourselves? You start resenting the fact that Eiffel is a lousy writer, but what's really at stake is that Forster doesn't trust his viewer's intelligence, nor the simpler possibilities of his material. The film is cluttered with fussy visual flourishes, CGI diagrams of digits, dental charts, street maps representing the neurotic orderliness of Harold's mind, dangling in mid-air and unfolding, clattering flaps and sub-sections.

You wonder all whether this is supposed to represent the nature of Eiffel's novel, some obsessively footnoted Nicholson Baker tract, perhaps, or a House of Leaves-style book-as-monstrous-object? No, Forster just seems to throw it all in to make the film look glossier, wittier, more modish; but it makes Stranger Than Fiction look like a softcore derivative of the dizzy meta-fictional rhetoric you associate with Charlie Kaufman's scripts for Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and of Fight Club's ferocious visual overkill. Marc Forster's previous films have been varied, competent, rather anonymous (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland); in this story of a man looking for a life, you suspect he's covertly narrating his own search for a style.

By and by, Ferrell and Gyllenhaal fit pleasantly into a mild-meets-wild coupling in the tradition of Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. Ferrell's sweet ox-like bemusement nicely offsets the flamboyant supporting cast. Emma Thompson's writer is wilfully made to seem the least realistic figure in the whole thing, and while her pained mangling of Kleenexes is a touch excessive, the more chain-smoking, neurotic, sour-mouthed Brit intellectual characters they can write into the ever-cleaner Hollywood romcom genre, the better. Hoffman, meanwhile, loads a fairly functional character with a stack of those arbitrarily zany tics that he can never resist: here, it's his whim to lounge around barefoot, pick his teeth in a mirror and guzzle copious yogurt. The one surprise in Stranger Than Fiction is that no one points the finger at Hoffman himself as a fictional creation, on the lam from Thomas Pynchon's new book.