Holiday Film Guide: Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

He avoids the darker, better side of his filmmaking talent.

Lapping around the edges of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a memory of Bill Murray’s ill-advised 1984 fling at The Razor’s Edge. A comedian goes for deep thoughts and a philosophical message, but with a few jarring goofball sequences thrown in to keep the fans tuned in. Without question, Walter Mitty holds together a lot better than The Razor’s Edge, but the nagging suspicion that Stiller is trying to prove something keeps this movie from finding its wings.

Walter Mitty, a name synonymous with a mild-mannered fantasizer, was born in James Thurber’s imagination—and the pages of The New Yorker—in 1939. Danny Kaye tried on the character for slapstick in 1949, but Stiller is mostly in a thoughtful vein here (he plays Walter and also directs). Walter is a nebbish who works in the photo department for LIFE magazine, and the film’s early going is punctuated with his fantasies about heroically impressing a co-worker (Kristen Wiig, absurdly limited by her role). The most inspired: a dig at The Curious Curse of Benjamin Button—a daffy throwback to Stiller’s sketch comedy days, even if it doesn’t fit the general tone here.

Then Walter’s daydreaming side is back-burnered as he goes on an actual adventure: He’s trying to find the charismatic, Robert Capa–like photographer (Sean Penn) who has a particular photograph meant for LIFE ’s final cover. Like a James Bond movie that needs to fire its location manager, the film leads Walter to Greenland and Iceland, where he indeed finds a backbone.

All of which steers toward a placidly nice message, if not very close to Thurber’s Walter Mitty. But that original character, a portrait of quiet desperation resigned to the bittersweet escape of daydreaming, would be far too depressing for a holiday picture. Walter Mitty means well—you can feel the movie straining to be something special, which is better than settling for another Night at the Museum iteration. But it does taint things somewhat to be leaning quite so heavily on prominent product placement for a certain online dating service. (Said service even gets Patton Oswalt as its cheerful rep, who apparently makes house calls.) Based on Stiller’s past, best work—his straight acting in Permanent Midnight and Greenberg, his fearless directing of The Cable Guy and Tropic Thunder—there’s a strong moviemaker lurking there. Mitty is sunny-side-up, not Stiller’s best mode.

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY Opens Wed., Dec. 25 at Sundance and other theaters. Rated PG. 114 minutes.

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