It's a great movie no matter how you look at it, but it's hard not to notice that Stranger Than Fiction is the best movie Charlie Kaufman never wrote. The story-within-a-story-within-a-story premise smacks of the über-meta style Kaufman brought to Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind -- IRS agent Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) awakens one day to find that he is, in fact, the main character in a novel being written by an eccentric, chain-smoking writer named Karen Eiffel, played by Emma Thompson. This is where we would expect the narrative to start nose-diving towards meta-land; the movie's story is Harold's story, but Harold's story is apparently Karen's story. If Charlie Kaufman were writing the script, this is where he himself would make his appearance because the whole thing is, in fact, the screenwriter's story. But lucky for us, Stranger Than Fiction's actual writer, Zach Helm, hits the ball out of the park on this point: he stays out of it. The film turns out to be a classic (classic meaning enduring, not meaning a pseudonym for trite) tale about the self-imprisonment of modern-life, about the value of companionship, and about the joy of infinite possibilities. The wild premise -- while always entertaining -- eventually takes a back seat to Crick and his existential adventure.
This is another area where the film bears a strong resemblance to a Kaufman project, as Will Ferrell's uncharacteristically sensitive, intimate performance is very reminiscent of the way funnyman Jim Carrey did the same thing in Eternal Sunshine. Watching a loud-mouthed comedic actor keep it "reeled-in" has novelty, but Ferrell does a lot more than that here. He proves he can really act, portraying Harold with more than enough love and authenticity for us to pull for him as he falls in love with the feisty, anti-establishment pastry chef he's auditing (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Harold pursuing a romance with the ill-tempered baker becomes just one of many ways in which he tries to make the story of his life into something he's proud of. It may sound hard to believe, but as the movie progresses, the fact that key elements of Harold's life are being decided by they keystrokes of a reclusive novelist becomes fairly easy to accept. By the end, Harold's sweet, unpretentious, and extremely poignant story doesn't belong to screenwriter Zach Helm or even to Karen Eiffel, it's just Harold's and, by extension, ours.