There are so many things I like about this film that I hardly know where to begin talking about it. I suppose I should first start by mentioning how smartly written the movie is. The screenwriter, Zach Helm, takes what could be a hackneyed premise and turns it into a story that is genuinely sweet and touching. It follows the exploits of Harold Crick, an IRS agent, who lives a life of mundane consistency. One morning, Harold wakes up and hears a female voice narrating his life. His initial irritation and concern changes to alarm when the voice reveals that Harold is headed to an untimely death.
Frantic about facing his own mortality, Harold seeks out help to avoid his fate and, in the process, he ends up changing his life for the better. A meeting with a psychiatrist leads him to getting advice from a literature professor, who instructs Harold to live his life to the fullest until they are able to find out what kind of story he is in, namely a comedy or a tragedy. Harold begins to indulge in his long neglected passions, starts to connect with the people around him, and even falls in love with a young woman he is auditing. All of this occurs as he is slowly approaching his eminent death.
What makes these pretty outlandish circumstances palatable is the interesting ensemble cast. Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, and here he manages to dial down his trademark mania to portray a man whose very existence is muted. He is surrounded in the film by the likes of Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, and Queen Latifah, all of whom create interesting and compelling characters that seem to have distinct histories of their own outside of the main narrative.
Of particular note are the characters played by Emma Thompson and Queen Latifah. Thompson plays Karen Eiffel, the author whose voice Harold hears throughout the film. Unbeknownst to her, the writer's block she is battling is caused by Harold's efforts to stay alive. Queen Latifah is Penny Escher, a publisher's assistant, who has been sent to help Karen finish the book.
These characters have a very clearly defined relationship that provides a counterpoint to Harold's experiences. Their interactions with one another are made more interesting by the unexpected pairing of Thompson and Latifah, who are engaging as individual actresses and manage to parlay that into an easy chemistry with one another. Their scenes would make an interesting movie by themselves, but here they enhance the main storyline.
Stranger Than Fiction is one of those films in which all the right elements come together in precisely the right ways to make something that is truly a joy to watch from beginning to end. In the years since its release, I've yet to see a film that is quite like it, and that is a testament to its originality and style.