Stranger Than Fiction
Sony Pictures Entertainment
Directed by Marc Forster
Starring Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, and Dustin Hoffman
Rated PG-13

You’re thinking Stranger Than Fiction is gonna be one of those mind-benders like Adaptation or Being John Malkovich, but you’re wrong. This is much sweeter, much more soulful … much more human. Fiction, from first-time screenwriter Zach Helm, is huggably brilliant, like it peers right into your heart to nod its head at how your secret wishes for yourself, for love and friendship and purpose, are exactly what it has in mind, too.

Fiction called to mind one of my favorite movies about being a writer: Wonder Boys, in which Tobey Maguire’s young author asks himself, “Am I the hero of my own life?” Here, IRS agent Harold Crick comes to realize that he is, indeed, the hero of his own life — a literal literary hero — when he begins to hear a woman’s voice narrating his life as if he were a character in a book. And he is. He doesn’t know this for certain for a while, but the film, directed by Marc Forster (Finding Neverland), jumps back and forth between Harold trying to figure out how this voice knows so much about him, and legendary reclusive novelist Karen Eiffel, who is suffering from writer’s block in the midst of her new book: she can’t come up with a way to kill her protagonist, Harold Crick, mild-mannered tax auditor.

Fiction is wonderfully unapologetic fantasy: It offers no explanation for its deliciously bizarre premise, it just has a whole lot of thinky fun with its ramifications. Like Harold’s desperate turn to a university professor of literature (Dustin Hoffman) in an attempt to figure out just what the heck is going on: Is Harold’s story going to end up a tragedy or a comedy? Just how important could a simple literary conceit — such as the one embodied in the phrase “little did he know…” — be to one man’s life?

Little did he know today was the day he was going to die. Or meet the woman of his dreams. Or whatever momentous occasion was going to transpire. Is Harold fictional, or not? Don’t we all live in our own stories, in which “little did we know” rules our lives? Fate and chance and opportunity. Fiction launches into wild fantasy to ground itself warmly in reality, in the real world, where of course writers torment themselves over killing off a fictional character — Emma Thompson as Karen is an agreeable basket case, a creative neurotic that any creative neurotic will recognize.

In the real world none of us know what actions we take are important, and which aren’t. Except, now, Harold does know. He hears his narrator announce that “little does he know” that his own tragic death is imminent. How does that knowledge change what we do, and what we don’t do? The layers of complicated meta-ness get even more enchantingly confused now: Is Harold a fictional character in a fictional story in a “real” movie, or is he a “real” character in a “real” story in a fictional movie? But it’s always just about Harold, and whether he’s real or fictional or some sort of strange creature in a box of metaphysical mirrors, he’s someone you’re delighted to see beginning to grasp how tenuous life is. And so here’s the other film Fiction reminded me of, in more ways than one: Groundhog Day. I think it’s clear now that the smartest thing Will Ferrell has ever done is follow the path laid out by Bill Murray, turning in his clown’s nose for serious stories, for all that they still retain a certain dollop of comedy. Ferrell is lovely here, like I never could have imagined he’d be (I’d have said the same thing about Murray before Groundhog Day): His Harold is a bland-as-beige invisible man moving robotically through life until he gets that wake-up call and starts really living. As refreshingly twisted and original as Fiction ends up being, by the time it’s finished, all you care about is Harold, and whether he will come to fully appreciate everything he’s set out to appreciate.

The blending of the intellectual and the emotional that Stranger Than Fiction achieves is so rare, and so rarely done this well. So few films are so fully satisfying on every level like this one is. Watch for it to become an endlessly rewatchable classic like Groundhog Day.