The newest vehicle for the "comic" "talents" of "actor" Will Ferrell is fitfully amusing, much smarter in concept than execution, emotionally thin, and blessed by performances that make the characters seem much fuller than they actually are. It is, in other words, the finest picture of his career.

It's not Ferrell's career that I found myself thinking of while watching Stranger than Fiction, though, it was director Marc Forster, the Oscar-nominated hack who brought us the dramatically overrated Monster's Ball and Finding Neverland. He's not really an auteur in any useful sense of that word - there are no unifying themes across his films, nor does he really possess a consistent visual style - but it's still remarkable how comfortably this latest project fits next to the others: it's aggressively middle-brow, stylish without being even slightly imaginative, and way too focused on stopping everything dead in its tracks to make sure we pay attention to the A-C-T-I-N-G (which is actually a good deal better here than his previous work, for reasons that I'll get to). It's a smart film for dim people: it's exactly the sort of movie I would have loved when I was fifteen and was at least a little bit picky, but before I actually knew what makes a film good.

The screenplay by Zach Helm reads like a film student who wants to be the next Charlie Kaufman - naw, even better! He wants Charlie Kaufman to want to be him! - and thus it's no surprise that it's his first feature: Harold Crick (Ferrell) is a tax auditor who starts to hear an authorial voice narrating his life; this voice belongs to Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a reclusive novelist with writer's block who doesn't know how to kill the protagonist of her new book Death and Taxes, about an auditor named...Harold Crick. And thanks to a sentence starting "Little did he know..." Harold-in-reality is quite aware that he is soon going to die. This was thrilling and innovative when Luigi Pirandello first did it 85 years ago, but everything old is new again, and all that, and probably most people who will pay money for a Will Ferrell movie are not intimately familiar with Six Characters in Search of an Author.

"He who lives by the story, so also shall he die by the story," and even though I hate to pick every nit of a film's plot (the cinema is a storytelling medium only by accident and habit), for a film so self-satisfied with it's awesomely meta script, that seems to be the only way to go about it. Now, I'm going to be fair, and admit that I liked a good 45 minutes of the film. It wasn't bust-a-nut-laughing funny, but I caught myself laughing steadily, occasionally out loud. This isn't just due to Helm's admittedly good dialogue, but also because of two rock-solid performances: Thompson, proving that she can be a tart bitch just as well as she can be a nurturing mother; and Dustin Hoffman as a literary professor, being as loopy and fun as he has been for years, acting in a different and better film than Will Ferrell, with whom he shares all of his scenes.

The problem is that the film is desperately illogical. I don't mean the concept is illogical - it is, but I buy it. A while ago,* I wrote a review where among other things I made the argument that a film establishes its own reality, and what matters is never its fidelity to realism, but how well it maintains its internal logic. Stranger than Fiction fails to do that altogether, and in a film with such a specific fantasy element, that is a fatal misstep. At first it's only tiny things: Queen Latifah plays a woman named Penny, who has been assigned by the publisher to help Karen sort out her ideas. It's a pointless role structurally, and confusing - do publishers actually assign "inspiration coaches," and if so, how many did Thomas Pynchon kill and eat?

As the film progresses, the gaps become bigger and deeper: did Harold Crick exist before Karen Eiffel started writing? How come the book doesn't mention that he visits psychiatrists and literary professors, but does depict the scene where he tries to speak to his author? If he knows that he is going to die, but the narrator calls him "unknowing," doesn't that mean he's not the same as the character any longer, and he can escape his fate? Why does everyone call Karen a genius when her prose sounds so clunky? Contrast this to the film that started this whole "mindfuck comedy" subgenre, Being John Malkovich: the rules there are well-expressed and consistent, and it almost seems like Charlie Kaufman is exposing what happens, rather than inventing it ("oh, so that's what happens if he enters his own portal!"). Stranger than Fiction raises all sorts of dazzling questions, but it doesn't realize it raises them, and so they go unanswered, even when it seems like they should drive the plot in a very different way than it ends up going.

This would be bad enough, but around the one-hour mark, the film just stops being funny. There is one grand reason for this: Karen Eiffel writes a redemptive woman into Harold's life, and Maggie Gyllenhaal steps in as the audit victim Harold falls for. She's a fine actor, but the role is not fine, not at all, and the two lovers have no chemisty together (but, with whom could Ferrell truly have chemistry? And men don't count). The romance sucks all the air out of the story and leaves a rather awful film in its wake.

But hey! It's no Talladega Nights.