Picture Will Ferrell brushing his teeth in the morning and hearing a woman’s voice scrupulously describing every anal thing he’s doing. It’s a setup for farce, the kind Ferrell built his rep on. But the farce never comes. Instead, director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Monster’s Ball), following the appealingly eccentric drumbeat in the script by Zach Helm, crafts a gently absurdist fable. You might conjure up images of The Truman Show and Being John Malkovich, but Fiction is less self-reflexively clever and more intimate. Ferrell’s Harold Crick has his life on the line. Harold is an IRS agent, almost inhuman in the way he’s willing to put pretty bakery owner Ana Pascal (the ever-astonishing Maggie Gyllenhaal) out of business. But Harold snaps to when he realizes that the voice in his head belongs to an author who has made him the protagonist of her novel and is determined to kill him off. Near crazed, he consults professor Jules Hilbert (a slyly hilarious Dustin Hoffman), a literary expert who confirms that the voice belongs to Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson in fine, flinty form), a recluse known for books that end badly for their protagonists. Lucky for Harold, Kay has writer’s block that even her formidable new assistant (Queen Latifah) can’t cure. It’s the prof who advises Harold to persuade the author to change her story from a tragedy to a comedy. Forster, a director with a gift for negotiating quicksilver changes of mood, faces the same challenge and comes up a winner. Luckily for Forster, he has just the right actors to make magic happen. This is a Ferrell you’ve never seen before, nailing a role that calls for breakneck humor in the final race against the clock and touching gravity in the love scenes with Gyllenhaal. The moment in which Ana teaches Harold the joy of milk and cookies is a small gem. You can say the same thing about the movie, which pulls you in even when it trips on its grander ambitions as a meditation on life, death and taxes.