In every crude Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler movie, the comedians briefly have to stop being funny and recognize that their wacky behavior (compulsively lying, say, or manipulating time with a remote control) is hurting their generic family. But when asked to be at their most sincere, they're at their least sincere, because earnestness takes them too far out of their comfort zone. The small revelation of Stranger Than Fiction, a charming though problematic meta-movie in Charlie Kaufman mode, is that Will Ferrell with his guard down suggests genuine vulnerability and soul. So much so that the movie springs to life whenever it drops the cute Pirandello-like premise of a fictional character searching for an author, and focuses on the simple business of Ferrell finding love. In this case, the narrative curlicues of a clever screenwriter would have been better as a straight line.
Paced snappily to a soundtrack loaded with Spoon songs, Stranger Than Fiction stars Ferrell as a conspicuously literary figure, an obsessive-compulsive IRS agent whose routine existence is timed down to the toothbrush stroke. Emma Thompson inventories these daily rigors via third-person omniscient narration, but the fourth wall crumbles when Ferrell actually hears her talking about him. At first, it's an annoyance, but when Thompson hints of his imminent demise, Ferrell does everything in his power to stop her, including hiring a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman) to help him figure out his own story. Fortunately for him, Thompson has been suffering such crippling writer's block that her publishing imprint has sent out a "stenographer" (Queen Latifah) to help her finish.
Amid all this metafictional hoopla lies the real heart of the movie, a tentative romance between Ferrell and a tax-withholding baker played with adorable prickliness by Maggie Gyllenhaal. He's uptight, she's a free spirit, and they have a real chemistry that nicely offsets the film's artificial conceit. Though writer Zach Helm provides plenty of good opportunities for Ferrell to goof around, the film isn't all that enriching as a story about the creative process, and it falls especially flat whenever it cuts to Queen Latifah endlessly goading Thompson to wrap things up. In the end, Ferrell's complaints are more than justified: Who wants anyone—much less an all-knowing, all-controlling author—to interfere in matters of the heart?