When I saw that Will Ferrell was doing a movie with Emma Thompson that was pretty much structured around literary allusions, here was my verbatim response: "Oh God, please don't let it suck." I really wanted it to be good. It's not that I don't like Will Ferrell, because I do. But his movies tend to be a bit much. It's that Jim Carrey sweet-jeebus-calm-down vibe that's great... in small doses and when you're in the right mood, and the premise of the movie sounded so witty that I really wanted it to be good. And I adore Emma Thompson, so I was desperately not wanting Will Ferrell to ruin a movie with her in it. (Granted, Junior wasn't really a winner, but it was the early nineties, Thompson was charming in it (and I really didn't know who she was yet), and Schwarzenegger was "acting" instead of "governing," so that was nice.)
Fortunately, I can say without impunity that this movie was really good, even better than expected. For an English major/giant nerd such as myself, all of the literary in-jokes were a total turn-on. (Case in point: Ferrell keeping track of events in his life to try and determine if he is in a comedy or a tragedy.) The writing was witty and warm, and the plot, though not completely unpredictable, was well-structured and moved well.
As for the performances, they were great all-around. Ferrell was very likable, and toned down in a way that reminded me of Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, another excellent flick. He let the situation and two of the other characters be the zaniness and focused on building a character that was easy to root for and believe in. Maggie Gyllenhall was absolutely adorable; her character radiated vivacity and wit and a very believable kindness and charm. She's already a very beautiful woman, and the way she played her character only seemed to magnify that. I was falling in love with her, for pity's sake. And the chemistry between her and Ferrell was very easy to buy into. There are two moments in particular, one involving flour and one involving a piece of advice, that just made me root for the two of them so much. It was thoroughly enjoyable to watch.
As for the secondary characters, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, they were such enhancements for the film. Hoffman plays a helpful, eccentric English professor. He's such a dynamic lead, but he's so darn fun as these crazy side characters, like he was in I Heart Huckabees. Emma Thompson plays the author of Will Ferrell's book, and is a more sarcastic, harder character than she usually plays, and she is a delight. The little crush that she and Hoffman's characters have on each other is completely delightful as well.
The only off-note for me was Queen Latifah's role as Thompson's assistant. Something seems to be missing there, specifically her overall point in the film. I get it, she's the person who's supposed to be helping spur the book along, but there just didn't seem to be any real point to her presence. Which sucks, because I love Queen Latifah and I think she adds a lot to things (see also: Last Holiday, a movie that for all intents and purposes should have been rote and trite but was actually extremely entertaining) and it didn't seem to be there in this film. I'm wondering if there was more of a subplot with her that got edited out, and I hope that if there was it shows up on the DVD.
In any case, Stranger Than Fiction totally did not disappoint. Engaging plot, charming actors with good performances and a movie that treats the audience like it has a brain made the movie a really good experience for me.