The thing that killed the belief in Will Ferrell being a hot star, I gather, is the relatively paltry $62 million and change earned by Bewitched last summer. It didn’t make more, producers and agents decided, because Ferrell can’t be and never will be a romantic star (not with that chest-hair problem). And now there’s a faint aroma of concern over his next big studio movie, Stranger Than Fiction (Columbia, November ’06). Directed by Marc Forster (Neverland, Monster’s Ball) from a clever script by last year’s hip-screenwriter-of-the-moment Zach Helm, it costars Maggie Gyllenhaal (as Ferrell’s romantic interest), Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, Emma Thompson. Thing is, the cleverness of it feels to me like it might wear thin after 20 minutes, at which point the film will have to sink or swim based on the audience liking and identifying with Ferrell’s character, a dull IRS auditor. The hook is that he suddenly starts hearing his life being narrated as it happens. Helm’s script isn’t a cute-romance thing (it deals with death) but I don’t know. I started reading it a few months ago and went, “Okay…this is amusing…good idea”…but I wasn’t strongly pulled along and put it aside. I tried reading it again a couple of weeks later…ditto. (But I haven’t given up.) Meanwhile Winter Passing (Focus Features), a downerish drama about suffering writers that Ferrell costars in with Zooey Deschanel, is fizzling (the “cream of the crop” reviews were 42% positive on Rotten Tomatoes), but his next one, Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, an oafish, blue-collar NASCAR comedy (Columbia, August ’06), should do well. Ferrell’s next two films, apparently, are Blades of Glory, a sports drama about Olympic skaters, and David Mamet’s Joan of Bark: The Dog That Saved France.