Friday, January 3, 2014

Reality Does Bite: "Walter Mitty" a pleasant escape but obvious and fluffy

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
114 min., rated PG.

Based on James Thurber's 1939 short story (which already saw the cinematic treatment in 1947's Danny Kaye-starring Technicolor musical), "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" has ambition to be a life-affirming contemplation about seizing the day and finding oneself, but it adds up to less than the sum of its parts. Directing and starring in this reinterpretation of the classic material, Ben Stiller gives himself to the project, so much that it occasionally teeters on being a calculated, self-aggrandizing valentine to its own maker. The entire package is benign and noncynical without really coming together, but it certainly excels in moments both big and small, soaring and quiet.

For eleven years, the nebbish, humdrum Walter Mitty (Stiller) has been working as a negative asset manager at Life magazine. He gains the courage to create an account, but otherwise, Walter hasn't really done anything "noteworthy or mentionable" in his life and can't really get the attention of fetching co-worker and single mom Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). The only times Walter shows a brave, adventurous side are in his creative daydreams, where he zones out and envisions himself saving Cheryl's three-legged dog from a building fire or putting on the macho as a mountain climber. Then at work, antagonistic boss Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott) announces that this month's print issue of Life will be their last before going online. Right before he and his colleagues lose their jobs, Walter can't seem to find the 25th frame—and the very last cover photo—from thrill-seeking photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn). With nothing to lose and everything to gain, Walter takes a chance and sets out to work backwards, courtesy of Cheryl's advice, by hopping on a plane to Greenland to track down O'Connell. From dropping into shark-infested waters before boarding a fishing vessel to skateboarding around the path of a brewing volcano and backpacking through Iceland and then the Himalayas, it will be the biggest adventure Walter, or anyone, has ever experienced.

For parents expecting to bring their kids to a visual effects extravaganza akin to Ben Stiller being chased by an all-bones T-Rex in "Night at the Museum," "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is a step up from pandering holiday fare. After directing "Reality Bites," "The Cable Guy," "Zoolander," and "Tropic Thunder," this is kind of like Ben Stiller's midlife crisis movie, so the film might have trouble finding an audience. But if one can put the story into proper perspective, the film is like a dreamer's escape. As written by Steve Conrad (2006's "The Pursuit of Happyness"), the script is a long way from subtle: Walter is an employee of Life and wants to find purpose in his own life after all. The daydreaming segments, though, are often amusing, including a spoof of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and a cheeky fight sequence through the Life building and onto the New York City streets that feels lifted from "Man of Steel." In keeping with the story's optimistic worldview, the set-pieces during Walter's odyssey are realized with a twinkly whimsy and Stuart Dryburgh's wondrous, panoramic photography, along with transcendent use of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," Arcade Fire's "Wake Up," and a particularly lovely acoustic version of David Bowie's "Space Oddity." It's all very open-hearted and beautifully made with feel-good vibes, even if the substantive impact is akin to a slice of white bread.

Everyone should be glad to see Stiller here, away from his deer-caught-in-the-headlights shtick. The actor is earnest and likable enough, but aside from a meekness, Walter isn't that flawed to be a compelling hero. As Cheryl, Wiig does the kind of appealing, charismatic work that we've come to expect from her even when the role is more understated. Even with limited screen time as the elusive Sean O'Connell, Penn brings a touch of gravitas. Scott also gets stuck with the stereotypical part of Walter's jerk of a boss and wears a villainous beard as a shorthand. The other characters act as sounding boards, some of them more forced than others. For instance, Patton Oswalt is affable as always, being heard and finally seen as eHarmony employee Todd who keeps checking in on Walter to fill out his bare profile, but the use of his character is just odd. (The blatant product placement for and Papa John's isn't terribly distracting, until Todd offers Walter "Cinnabon" by name twice.) Shirley MacLaine contributes a tender moment as his mother, but the bonkers, can't-miss comic talents of Kathryn Hahn seem to belong in a goofier movie here as she plays Walter's flighty sister Odessa who's auditioning for "Grease" as Rizzo. 

Ending up being about the journey rather than the destination, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is a likable piffle that is never as stirring as it was probably intended. The reveal of the 25th photo, called the "quintessence of life," actually feels more like a pat on Stiller's back than a poignant conclusion to send audiences on a cloud. And yet, around the holidays, all you need sometimes are some pretty pictures and capable actors telling a story they believe in to make a pleasant time at the multiplex.

Grade: B -

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