How much of our lives is predestined? How much do we owe to the small details? How many of those details are coincidence, how many of them are fate, and how many do not concern us? Such questions have long concerned theologians and are addressed, with somewhat more humor, in Stranger than Fiction.
The essential premise of Stranger than Fiction, revealed within the first couple minutes (or in the previews, assuming you have seen them) is that lead character Harold Crick (played by Will Ferrell) is, apparently, a character in the story of some anonymous narrator, whose voice he can hear going through his head. Harold is assigned to audit a bakery owned by Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal). He needs to deal with the information he learns from his narrator and try to figure out what is happening to him, at the same time that he starts falling for Ana.
The lead actors are all satisfactory in their roles. Ferrell acquits himself well in a film with serious value (the film is semi-serious, treating what is really weighty subject matter with a very light and comical touch). The only character truly developed in the story is Ferrell's, although we do peripherally learn about Gyllenhaal's Ana. Her character is somewhat clumsily developed, and her relationship with Ferrell never entirely makes sense, one of the few flaws in the film.
Should we take the main premise of the story at face value, there are two logical problems with Harold's predicament that I discerned as I watched (and possibly others, of course, that I did not catch). One, to my satisfaction, played a substantial part in the movie's denouement. The second was not addressed, and apparently is something that one has to "swallow" in order to believe the larger story of the narrator's control of Harold's life.
For Stranger than Fiction, a viewer can leave satisfied about the conclusion, or about the questions the movie brings to mind. The movie is not complex because its plot is multifaceted, but rather because it brings to mind questions about life which we can never truly answer, except to ourselves. In the end, the message I gathered was: (1) you create your own life, and it is authored by others (whoever they are) only to the extent that you allow it to be; (2) the details are the story; and, more heavy-handedly and explicitly, (3) there are many ways to change the world. Whether or not you derive the same messages depends on your incoming bias, and there are many other takes on the same material. However, whatever your thoughts on the topic, Stranger than Fiction can offer a convenient jumping-off point for such a discussion.
*** 1/2 (3.5 of 4 stars) - Stranger than Fiction (2006): Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah. Directed by Marc Forster, screenplay by Zach Helm. Running time 1:53. Viewed in theater (Edwards 23, Houston).