So. Turns out the only thing the prototypical American milquetoast Walter Mitty needed to get happy was a little stubble and a lavish travel budget.
In director Ben Stiller's earnest-but-screwy go at "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," Stiller himself takes the role of the daydreaming, "Yes, dear" fellow introduced in a wee-but-hardy 1939 James Thurber short story. Thurber sold it to The New Yorker and eventually his grey little man with prodigious dreams of heroism was given the Hollywood treatment in a post-war Danny Kaye vehicle.
Stiller has no interest in delivering the comic mania of Kaye. Rather, his Mitty is the center of an easygoing self-actualization travelogue in which the title character, here conceived as a photo archivist for a dying Life magazine, lurches from Greenland to Afghanistan, searching for an elusive photojournalist played by Sean Penn. (For the record, Life actually died several years ago.) In screenwriter Steven Conrad's story a crucial missing image, captured by the photographer but misplaced under Mitty's usually eagle-eyed watch, is desperately needed for Life's final cover. Recovering it may be the key to Mitty hanging onto his old-school, defiantly pre-digital job.
The irony of a story hinging on a tiny scrap of film forced to compete with a sea of computer-generated imagery is pretty odd. The movie feels uncertain as to its own tones and intentions. Fantasy blowouts, such as Stiller battling a slimy corporate takeover artist played by Adam Scott), offer a chuckle or two. Then we're back to the other movie, the one Stiller clearly had more interest in making.
Mitty is in love with a co-worker played by Kristen Wiig. The scenes between Stiller and Wiig have real charm, and Stiller's enough of a director to know when to simply let a leisurely patch of dialogue unfold in a single shot (in this first-conversation case, on a Manhattan sidewalk). Elsewhere, though, "Walter Mitty" operates on a scale that feels way, way off. Once Mitty leaves the confines of his shrinking life and crosses time zones in pursuit of the photographer, the seams of the picture threaten to split. Is a 21st century film about a Walter Mitty type really best served by gorgeous, eye-popping location shooting on a near-$100 million budget?
Shirley MacLaine has a pleasant scene or two as Mitty's mom; Patton Oswalt works shrewd wonders as the voice (and then the face) of an eHarmony dating representative trying to get Mitty to goose up his profile. The film has a persistent and careful sheen. It looks good. It is, in fact, preoccupied with looking good. If this sounds like faint praise, I'm afraid it is.
"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" - 2 stars
MPAA rating: PG (for some crude comments, language and action violence)
Running time: 2:05