Ben Stiller goes from zero to hero in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."
(Photo: 20th Century Fox)
By Claudia Puig
Walter Mitty is an introverted guy with an active fantasy life, according to the classic 1939 short story by James Thurber.
In Ben Stiller's well-intentioned but insipid re-invention of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (** out of four; rated PG; opens Wednesday nationwide), he's a shy daydreamer who goes from zero to hero by flitting off to Greenland, Iceland and the Himalayas.
Though he hardly ever has ventured out of his native New York, Walter is able to shed his timidity and exchange his imagined heroic fantasies for the real thing, in record time.
Stiller, who directs and stars in Mitty, has loosely based his film on the story and given it a contemporary setting. But by trying to combine fantasy and romance with goofy humor, globe-trotting adventure and feel-good inspiration, Stiller has made Mitty a mixed bag of clashing tones and facile redemption.
He bypasses Thurber's satirical treatment in favor of plodding earnestness. Stiller's is an undeniably attractive production, with gorgeous locations and some stunning special effects. But it's a dull story.
In the 1947Mitty movie, which starred Danny Kaye, Walter drove safely around town with his wife, while his adventurous escapades remained firmly and unequivocally inside his head.
In Stiller's version Walter has a crush on Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), a down-to-earth co-worker. He's a photo editor at Life magazine where he's bullied by an obnoxious new boss (Adam Scott) and mocked by co-workers. Peripatetic photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), however, speaks only to Walter at the magazine.
Walter's far-flung expeditions are focused on retrieving a photo negative to be used in the magazine's final print edition. The adventures serve more symbolically to help him break out of a lifelong rut. He dodges an erupting volcano in Iceland and climbs the Himalayas with nary a misstep. He even plays soccer with sherpas. Yet, his journey is un-involving and occasionally convoluted.
Stiller was aiming for this effort to be substantive, complex and thoughtful. Some of the smaller moments work, but the epic sequences, particularly in the climactic meeting with O'Connell on a towering mountain, fall flat. And in his endeavor to make a crowd-pleasing, feel-good movie, Stiller blunts the edges and subtlety.
Though the film is ambitious on most fronts, Stiller inexplicably made Walter a vague character. He's somewhere between an Everyman and a comic goofball, but not enough of either. For some reason this meek middle-aged man can do showy skateboard tricks worthy of Shaun White. Other than that, he's bland, genial, sporadically funny and long-suffering, but rarely engaging.
The blatant product placement - online dating site eHarmony and Papa John's Pizza - injects a calculated quality to a film meant to be sincere and poignant.
Those who enjoyed Stiller in the Night at the Museum movies might find this sentimental entertainment appealing. But fans of his wacky, absurd comedies, such as Tropic Thunder or Zoolander, will find this more serious Stiller disappointingly bland.