Harold Crick is a dull boy: He counts brushstrokes when he cleans his teeth. His favorite word is integer. Nevertheless, a Voice (Emma Thompson) enters his head, narrating his most mundane tasks. And when the annoying intruder announces Harold's imminent doom, his insipid existence as an IRS employee receives a jolt.
Screenwriter Zach Helm mines elements of The Truman Show and Groundhog Day in Stranger Than Fiction, trapping his protagonist in an existential drama beyond his control and challenging him to become the hero of his own life. As Crick, Ferrell imbues his trademark incognizance with irresistible sweetness. Smitten with a tax-cheating baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal, never as radiant), Crick wins her over with his desperate vulnerability. When she finally embraces him after his dulcet rendition of Wreckless Eric's ''Whole Wide World,'' any trace of Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby is gone.
The modest featurettes, which celebrate obscure crew members and offer a tour of the Chicago shoot, are a bit too self-congratulatory. The fascinating exception is ''Picture a Number,'' detailing the special effects that provide an on-screen window into Crick's analytical mind. They enliven Crick when he's counting steps or calculating equations, but it's Ferrell's minimalist acting that makes Stranger repeat viewing. A-