Ben Stiller’s a daydream believer in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

by Mark Burger

As both director and star of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller takes some chances — and quite a few of them pay off… for a time, anyway.

Adapted from James Thurber’s classic short story, which was previously made (1947!) into one of Danny Kaye’s better vehicles, this modern interpretation by Steve Conrad allows Stiller the director to bring a whimsical, wistful quality that echoes both Frank Capra and Steven Spielberg.

In the title role of the doleful dreamer, Stiller’s patented neurosis is on display and appropriate, but it’s also been tempered down. He’s less edgy or frenzied than in other performances (DodgeBall, The Royal Tenenbaums, the “Focker” films) but still appealing and empathetic in Everyman fashion.

This Walter Mitty, who toils in the photo lab at Life Magazine, clearly has a vivid imagination, given his propensity to “zone out.” But when the magazine undergoes a downsizing, at the venal hands of a smug corporate hatchet man (Adam Scott, delightfully loathsome), and Walter misplaces a crucial negative, he embarks on the adventure of a lifetime — his lifetime.

Boasting some impressive (and sometimes amusing) visual effects and beautifully filmed by Stuart Dryburgh, the film also benefits from choice comedic bits along the way, including a boisterous turn by Olafur Darri Olafsson as a beerswilling helicopter pilot with a fondness for karaoke. Some of the humor is more Stiller than Thurber, but it’s no less funny — and never disrespectful to the source.

The supporting cast, headed by Kristen Wiig as Walter’s love interest Cheryl, includes Shirley MacLaine, Kathryn Hahn, Adrian Martinez and Sean Penn, the latter as the Life photographer whose globetrotting exploits inspire our hero.

Walter’s transformation from inward dreamer to outward adventurer is a foregone conclusion, but it happens with such immediacy that the film’s third act becomes almost anti-climactic. It’s nice that Walter finds himself, but one can’t help missing his imaginative fantasies. !

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