Start with a character, played movingly by a suddenly serious Will Ferrell, who walks on autopilot through a purposeless life. Plot in an obsessive-compulsive-boy-meets-vivacious-girl (the glowing Maggie Gyllenhaal), and we have the stuff of Hollywood cliché, although brilliantly done here. But add the idea that Ferrell one day realizes that his monotonous, joyless existence is being narrated and in some way controlled by an author (the terrific Emma Thompson) who plans his imminent death, and we have a film that can open up theological conversations.
Did I mention that Stranger Than Fiction provoked great gusts of laughter from a packed first-night audience? It did, and the humor allows the implicit philosophical tension to go down smoothly. Screenwriter Zach Helm suggests that our lives are part of a bigger design but that we also have free will; that knowing we have purpose rescues us from everydayness and can even lead us to heroic activity; that there is joy in simple tasks, such as serving good cookies. These are important lessons.
Christians will even note in (or perhaps read into) this film a Christocentric flavor: What can lead a person to go willingly to his death, and isn't that a person who should not permanently disappear from the greatest story ever told? Stranger Than Fiction has a PG-13 rating for some disturbing images (the Thompson character imagines falling to her death), sexuality (two of the characters go to bed together), brief language, and nudity. The latter is actually what Texans call "nekkidness," as some out-of-shape bodies waddle by in the background while Ferrell and a professor (Dustin Hoffman, in a perfect parody) converse in a faculty locker room.
Unless you by principle or preference will not watch a movie that contains such stuff, go see this one.