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MOVIE REVIEW

In 'Fiction,' his life, her novel, and our loss

In "Stranger Than Fiction," Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick , an IRS auditor whose life is a bore. Every day he brushes his teeth using the same number of strokes and gallops across the street at a pace that never varies. He has no friends, no ostensible interests, and while my hand couldn't reach from my seat to his neck up on screen, I'd bet Harold doesn't have much of a pulse either.

This stultifying greeting card of a movie wants to correct that. One day he hears a pinched British voice and, to his annoyance, it narrates his every move, reveals his every thought, and catalog s his many fastidious habits (slick diagrams pop up on screen to reiterate what the narrator tells us).

The voice isn't God's. It's Emma Thompson 's, and this film marks the first time I've wished she'd shut up. Moping with condescending teenage sullenness, Thompson plays Karen Eiffel , a miserably frustrated bestselling author, whose novel-in-progress, "Death and Taxes," happens to star an unwitting Harold. So the picture -- which, after all, wants to be a comedy -- is divided between two exasperating cliches: a joyless tax man and a blocked writer.

As the author considers a way to kill off her fictional creation, the actual Harold slowly arises from his stupor and dares to take a bite out of life -- or at least the cookies the prickly baker he's auditing (Maggie Gyllenhaal ) forces him to eat. "Stranger Than Fiction" aspires to ingenuity, but the cosmic tension between Karen and Harold's dueling objectives is underwhelming. Even after he hears her mention his "imminent death," Harold's determination to live doesn't wake the movie up. It gets sluggish and simple.

While Karen snaps at the assistant (Queen Latifah ) her publisher has sent to ensure her new book's completion, Harold visits a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman ), who can't begin to counsel or cure him until he determines whether Harold is in a comedy or a tragedy. To that end, Harold keeps a running notepad tally. When Gyllenhaal's character, whom Harold adores, doesn't laugh at a joke, he chalks one up for tragedy. Needless to say, this might be the biggest literary misapprehension since Alanis Morissette 's "Ironic."

Real irony, though, is out of the reach of screenwriter Zach Helm and director Marc Forster . Instead, they strain for the arch surrealist structure and metaphysical curlicues of a Charlie Kaufman picture. (Occasionally, the film cuts away to a little boy on a bike and a woman who drives a bus; they'll come in handy for the overwrought climax.) Watching the movie made me long for the big , risky ideas and entertainingly fearless filmmaking in David O. Russell's "I Heart Huckabees " and Spike Jonze's "Adaptation ," which Kaufman wrote. Both were similarly conceptual escapades, but they let it all hang out.

"Stranger Than Fiction" is uptight. Helm is clearly pro-love and happy endings, but he's short on loose, fresh ideas. And Forster, whose last movie was the unnavigable thriller "Stay," is, at heart, a sentimentalist. Having made both "Monster's Ball" and "Finding Neverland," he seems to cherish platitudes, and Helm's script contains a staggering variety. At some point, Harold buys a guitar, and Karen's narration tells us that he "did that which the unrelenting lyrics of those numerous punk rock songs told him. Harold Crick lived his life."

Will anyone find that as revelatory as the filmmakers do?

The casting is so conventional that you can imagine the actors were hired by committee. Only Hoffman really seems to relish his role, which is ultimately just a conceit . Still, the right people have the wrong parts. Why not let Thompson play the auditor and have Ferrell play Hoffman's part? Hoffman could breathe life and wisdom into Latifah's thankless assistant, while she plays the baker, and Gyllenhaal plays Karen. If that doesn't make a better movie, it at least makes one I haven't already seen.

Some scenes, however, no actor can save. Gyllenhaal tells Ferrell she dropped out of Harvard Law because, "if I was going to make the world a better place, I'd do it with cookies." By this point, the only reason for an audience to remain seated is to discover which letters of the alphabet sponsored the movie.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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