It used to be that when a comedian turned serious, he got sticky and sentimental (Charlie Chaplin, Jerry Lewis, Robin Williams). Now, thanks to Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, the day the clown cried has given way to the day the clown went hip and minimalist and postmodern. Stranger Than Fiction, an eminently easy-to-watch piece of one-joke pop japery, is a movie that mimics the I'm-a-character-in-my-own-life metaphysical playfulness of The Truman Show as well as the wheels-within-wheels cleverness of a Charlie Kaufman contraption like Adaptation with, it must be said, far less art or imagination than either. How do we know that Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), the pathologically cautious and mild hero, is the Compleat Nerd, a new-millennium Walter Mitty who's deathly in need of liberating his inner pleasure-seeker? We know it because he gets up each morning at the same time, cleans his teeth with the same number of brushstrokes, and takes the same number of steps to the bus a ritualized existence the film illustrates, rather charmingly, with flat-screen computer diagrams that pop out of Harold's head and quiver around him, as if his brain were a piece of software.
I should add that Harold eats alone, sleeps alone, and does everything else in his sterile, immaculate apartment alone. That he not only works as an IRS agent but likes his job. That his story is related to us by a narrator who speaks in tones of such orotund English plumminess that she might be Mary Poppins reading from Peter Pan. And that Ferrell, wearing a stylized flattop (that hair signifies the fizzy soul he's suppressing), plays Harold by reducing his elastic face to a doughy blank and generally giving him the demeanor of a functional low-level depressive.
One morning, as he's counting toothbrush strokes, Harold stops in the middle of everything. Suddenly, he can hear the narrator. He's listening, moment by moment, to the story of his life, and he doesn't much like what he hears, especially when it turns out that the story's mysterious creator, a reclusive novelist named Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), is planning to kill him off. Since Harold is already such an abstract bureaucratic nowhere man, there's very little resonance to learning that he exists inside somebody's fiction. He seems thinner than life to begin with.
Yet there's no denying the movie has a surface allure. The director, Marc Forster (Finding Neverland ), shoots Zach Helm's Kaufman Lite script in candy colors and at vivid angles, and he gets infectious performances out of Maggie Gyllenhaal as the testy-adorable ''progressive'' bakery owner who lures Harold from his shell; Dustin Hoffman as the jovial academic who helps him crack the mystery of the narrator; and Thompson, who makes the frazzled, chain-smoking author the most passionate presence in the movie. As for Ferrell, he gets points for taking a chance, but the next time he goes serious, he should try to do it in a movie that allows him to stay true to the excitable inner life that made him a star.