“Who wants to die for art?”
Three decades ago, Divine asked the question in John Waters’ “Female Trouble,” while aiming a gun at a captive audience.
Essentially the same question gets asked again in “Stranger Than Fiction,” a spotty screwball comedy about a geeky IRS auditor named Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) who discovers that he’s the subject of a new book. It’s the work of a popular British novelist, Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), who has a habit of killing off her characters.
In order to complete her latest novel, Harold will apparently have to die, quite literally, for Karen’s art. Is this his destiny? Or is there a rational escape route? Do the patterns of his life indicate that death-by-fiction is his natural end, or could an arrangement be made? And does he even want to live if death could mean literary immortality?
Fresh off one of his biggest hits, “Talladega Nights,” Ferrell is taking chances here with multiplex audiences by offering something completely different and rather arty. And they may warm to his love scenes with Maggie Gyllenhaal, who’s incandescent as an income-tax protestor who writes nasty letters to Harold (“Dear Imperialist Swine...”) before succumbing to his naïve sincerity.
But what will Farrell’s fans make of the truly odd episodes in which Karen pushes her deadly narrative agenda and a fussy literature professor (Dustin Hoffman) uses the classics to guide Harold through the life-threatening situations she invents?
“Don’t do anything to move the plot forward,” he tells Harold, who briefly turns into a couch potato, pigging out and watching Nature Channel documentaries. To no avail. As soon as he’s settled in, a wrecking ball wipes out the wall of his living room.
Much of “Stranger Than Fiction” suggests that Ferrell is following the recent career detour of another “Saturday Night Live” veteran, Adam Sandler, who followed up his lowest-common-denominator hits with the art-house-only success of “Punch Drunk Love.”
First-time screenwriter Zach Helm owes a great deal to the works of Charlie Kaufman, especially his scripts for “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” There’s also a touch of “The NeverEnding Story” in the way the movie accepts the shattering of boundaries between fiction and those who become seduced by it.
The director, Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland”), emphasizes the loopiness of the material without always seeming comfortable with it. Far too much time is spent on cute sight gags — we see Harold brushing his teeth from a vantage point inside his mouth — and jokes about Harold’s abilities as a math whiz (cartoony images of graphs and statistics follow him around).
Still, there are quite a few inspired moments: Ferrell and Gyllenhaal conducting a courtship on a zig-zagging bus; Queen Latifah’s cameo role as a pushy publisher’s assistant who specializes in overcoming writer’s block (“I’ve never missed a deadline”); Hoffman skewering ivory-tower pretensions with a monologue about the literary history of the phrase, “Little did he know.” For every three or four jokes that strike out, there’s at least one that clicks.