Maybe Professor Hilbert knows exactly how right he is, given the film's relentless archness: it knows that you know that it knows it's meta.
I think [Kay] had a very powerful father. He was very, very clever and withholding of affection and approval, and he knew she was a good writer — actually a great one — and was very jealous of that. He withheld his approval, and she developed a spirit of masochistic perfectionism which I think is common, the feeling of thinking something’s never good enough.
--Emma Thompson, "Beauty Is Much Less Than Skin Deep" (The New York Times 5 November 2006)
Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is trying to complete a novel. This makes her anxious. She smokes cigarettes, drinks vodka, and ponders suicide. But not to worry: she's not thinking of killing herself, just her character. All of her novels feature poignant, meaningful deaths for her protagonists, and so she's got to deliver to that expectation, because she is renowned, if reclusive, and her readers want more of the same.
Kay's predicament is at the center of Stranger Than Fiction, but you don't actually find that out right away. First, you meet the man she means to kill, Harold Crick (Will Ferrell). He's an IRS agent, obsessed with numbers, certainties, measurable events. He counts the number of times he brushes his teeth, the number of blocks he walks to the bus, the precious few minutes he takes for lunch. Such interest in counting is useful for an auditor, and, according to Stranger Than Fiction, it's also "endearing," a point underscored by occasional split screens and little animated numbers that pop up around Harold when he goes through his motions.
Harold himself appears sanguine about all this, at least until his soothing-toned narrator suggests that something may be amiss. As his Wednesday begins the same way that it always does, Harold suddenly becomes aware of his narrator, and pauses in his diurnal teeth-brushing. "Is someone there?" he wonders aloud.
There is. As Harold measures each of is activities, Kay is narrating. Apparently, Harold has lived much of his fictional life unaware of her existence, but as Stranger Than Fiction begins, and his end is near, her voiceover intrudes, and understandably alarms him. As if his awareness of being narrated is not strange enough, his routine is also altered radically, when Kay has him meet the woman who will be the love of his life, that is, his next auditee. A baker by trade, Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has withheld part of her taxes in protest against the government's corruption, bailing out corporations and funding ill-conceived ventures. Harold doesn't know her purpose when he meets her, only that Ana has not paid the correct amount. He stands in her funky, obviously successful bakery, the only figure in a suit, and informs her he means to audit her. Ana pauses, briefly, in her own morning prep: "Get bent!" she says, then adds, "Taxman!"
She is striking, this angry, tattooed, tank-topped girl, even Harold can see that. She's also not easily convinced that she should let go of her protest against "the government," and go ahead and pay the percentage of her taxes she's withheld in order not to pay for corporate bailouts and other general corruptions. As he gazes on her, eyes wide, the narrator interjects, "Harold wasn't prone to fantasies," but as he lapses into one, the film follows suit: Ana appears in slow motion, her finger in her mouth. "You're staring at my tits," Ana informs Harold. "Only as a representative of the U.S. government," he insists.
The exchange is reasonably clever, but more importantly, it settles the trajectory of their relationship: Ana will eventually fall in love with Harold (it's hard to say why, except that it's written), and he will discover in her profound reason not only to change his routine abut also to live. That is, Ana gives Harold reason to resist the fate he's dealt by Kay, whose first appearance on screen nicely illustrates her protagonist's predicament: she stands on a high rise rooftop, smoking a cigarette. She's in a classic sort of suicidal pose, but this is not the film's story, or hers. Even if she is, as Thompson proposes, confronting some pretty "common" demons, Kay's story is about her creative process, not her own destruction.
And so comes the cuteness. While Harold's romance provides rudimentary plot, Stranger Than Fiction's primary relationship will be his and Kay's, as they come to terms over his about-to-be-dead body. Though they don't actually converse until late in the film, they are aware, after a fashion, of one another's existence. In order for that relationship to develop without contact, the film provides each participant with someone approximating the usual romantic comedic confidant. Kay's editor sends over an assistant, Penny (Queen Latifah), to speed along the resolution of the manuscript, and Harold, rejecting the judgment of a therapist (Linda Hunt) regarding his sanity, seeks the advice of a literature professor, Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman).
Even as these supporting characters appear to complicate the film's cunning metafiction, they mostly serve very typical and frankly reductive functions. Penny (who seems to have reinvented the "thankless role") attends to Kay's general life needs, cleaning ashtrays in her spotless white-on-white apartment and offering encouragement toward completing the manuscript: "I'm available to you every minute of every day," she says sternly, adding, "I do not abide narcotics." Fine, Kay agrees, even as she pursues what she perceives as the feeling of death, the ways that it might become meaningful for readers even though it is, for Harold, meaningless. Being the writer, Kay is apparently in between these points.
Hilbert, for his not-so-witty part, suggests that Harold is living in either a comedy or tragedy (see: Woody Allen). Having heard Kay refer to his "imminent death," Harold is understandably eager to learn which it is. He is, of course, the only character in his part of the plot who can hear Kay's voiceover, leading his coworkers to observe his strange behavior with concern, though Hilbert seems inclined to believe him, at least to his face. After listening to Harold's complaint that he feels like a character in his own life, Hilbert notes sagely, "Dramatic irony: it'll fuck you every time."
He's more right than he knows. Or maybe he knows exactly how right he is, given the film's relentless archness: it knows that you know that it knows it's meta. It's not long before the movie's vigorous efforts to channel Charlie Kaufman and Andrew Niccol, not to mention Ferrell's efforts to follow in Jim Carrey's footsteps, leave Stranger Than Fiction looking rather familiar, not strange at all.
This even though it shares some concerns with director Marc Foster's more adventurous (and unfairly dismissed) Stay, which is to say, identity and fate, with the space we live in serving as metaphor as well as literal context. Here those themes turn puffy and sweet. Harold's space is fictional and so easily adjusted and disrupted, in one case literally. When his apartment wall is smashed by a wrecking crew, they apologize for targeting a wrong address but make their thematic point nonetheless, that life is precarious, and Harold must realize his love for Ana, seize the day and etc. Aside from this frankly bracing oddity, however, Stranger Than Fiction is content to deliver to expectations.