114 minutes | MPAA rating: PG
You’ve got to be of a certain age for the name Walter Mitty to even mean anything. In other words, old.
First appearing in a short story by James Thurber and then enacted on the screen by Danny Kaye in 1947, the story of a milquetoast Every Man who dreams himself the hero of countless adventures became so ubiquitous that any mousey guy with an active fantasy life was immediately identified as a Walter Mitty type.
More than 60 years later we have Walter’s latest incarnation in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” starring and directed by Ben Stiller. An actor who has often dealt in broad caricatures, Stiller here dials things way down. And he’s more interested in heart than in laughs.
The film opens cleverly enough with poor gray Walter wending his way to his job at Life magazine. He’s usually so lost in his own imagination that he misses his train. The opening credits are cleverly projected onto the city buildings around him.
Walter is a shy guy who aches longingly for a new coworker (Kristen Wiig) who seems not to know he exists. So he invents fantasies in which he’s able to sweep her off her feet. Part of the fun of the film’s opening passages is not knowing what’s real and what’s in Walter’s noggin.
Walter lives in the tomb-like basement of a vast office building where he’s a “negative assets manager.” His job is to receive, process, and print the rolls of film sent by the one Life photographer who has resisted the digital revolution. Of course you could also read “negative assets manager” in another way…and in fact Walter finds his livelihod threatened when the magazine is taken over by a sneering downsizer (Adam Scott) who announces they’re closing up shop after publishing one last issue.
Walter’s final assignment is to print a last cover shot from globe-hopping photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). But when the precious negative goes missing, the normally unassertive Walter takes off in search of the mysterious and hard-to-locate O’Connell. It’s a quest that finds him flying to the Artic Circle, outracing an erupting volcano, jumping out of a perfectly good aircraft into a storm-tossed sea, backpacking through the Himalayas and in general doing wild and crazy things that before he only dreamed about.
There are moments in this “Walter Mitty” that work extremely well. I’m not sure I’ve seen a funnier scene all year than the one in which Walter sits in a nearly-empty Greenland bar where a totally inebriated bear of a man (Olafur Darri Olafsson) croons karioke. Our man’s consternation turns to alarm when he realizes that this beer-swilling human grizzly is the pilot for his helicopter ride out over the ocean.
There’s also a pretty good running joke in which an operator at eHarmony (Patton Oswalt) keeps ringing up Walter at inopportune moments in an effort to beef up his deadly dull on-line profile.
Oh, yeah…Shirley Maclaine shows up as Walter’s mother, although she’s more a plot device than a character.
More sweet than funny, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is burdened with a meandering pace. But it also features some absolutely knockout visuals, thanks to Stuart Dryburgh’s gorgeous widescreen cinematography, eye-popping real locations, and subtle but hugely effective special effects work.
| Robert W. Butler