This exceedingly clever film is directed by the impressive Marc Forster who also gave us Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland (and the upcoming The Kite Runner that should be really good, too, given Forster’s track record and that the book is such an excellent story.)
Story is the key to enjoying Stranger than Fiction, because as the narrator, Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), of this story within a story within a story says, it is stories that will save us.
Howard Crick (Will Ferrell) lives by his wrist watch. He is an IRS agent who lives an unadorned life, works in an unadorned cubicle, and sleeps in an unadorned apartment. He has only one friend until he begins to audit the flamboyant Ana Paschal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who refuses to pay the percentage of her taxes that go to the military defense machine and other categories to which she objects. We hear the voice of the disembodied narrator from the beginning and then find out that Howard not only hears her voice as we do, but realizes his life is going according to her narration.
Karen Eiffel is the narrator, the omniscient tortured chain-smoking story-teller, who is shocked to discover that her hero is a real person. To her, and a professor of literature (played by Dustin Hoffman) that Howard consults, the hero must die if the story is to live forever.
I found Stranger than Fiction fascinating and completely enjoyable; it reminded me of Sliding Doors because reality takes place simultaneously in different “spaces” so to speak. The film offers much to talk about from our human need for stories, to the responsibility of writers, to the story-tellers contribution to culture, to entertainment, be it comedy or tragedy (the professor's definition of what makes comedy and tragedy is worth considering, too), to the anonymity of life in the city. Stranger than Fiction is also about life and not just accepting roles or narratives that are mere categories we can be fit into or fit ourselves into; it’s about living deliberately – and joyfully. And heroes do not always have to die to be great.
Will Ferrell is not one of my favorite actors, but here he proves his talent by taking on a whole new persona; he's credible. Emma Thompson and Hoffman both give excellent performances, and Queen Latifah, as Karen’s assistant, is as elegant as ever. Maggie Gyllenhaal is a natural as the bright, peppy, colorful, kind and principled neighborhood baker.
If you like stories, be sure to see Stranger than Fiction, and if you love stories, make this film a must-see.