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THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (2013) – The Review

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The last time busy Hollywood triple threat Ben Stiller (actor, writer, director) stepped behind the camera was way, waaaay back in 2008 for the Summer satirical comedy smash TROPIC THUNDER. So what work has inspired him to return to film making this winter? Why it’s a short story from James Thurber, himself something of a multiple threat (author, playwright, cartoonist) who passed away over fifty years ago. Now his work did make to the big and small screen during (and soon after) his lifetime. THE MALE ANIMAL was a starring vehicle in the 40’s for Henry Fonda. His story “A Unicorn in the Garden” became an acclaimed UPA animated short subject in the 1950’s. And in 1970 his writings and drawings were the inspiration for an NBC sitcom in 1970 called “My World and Welcome to It” (a gem that lasted barely one season). Two years later those same works also inspired the Jack Lemmon comedy THE WAR BETWEEN MEN AND WOMEN. And then there’s a little guy named Mitty. A Thurber short story became the basis for the 1947 Technicolor musical comedy extravaganza THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY. In that film Danny Kaye as Mitty is a meek day-dreaming pulp magazine editor who somehow rescues the gorgeous Virgina Mayo from sinister forces lead by Boris Karloff. The character has even crept into the language as anyone who is distracted by fantasy thoughts is said to be a “Walter Mitty”. Sixty six years later Mr. Stiller is taking on the role of the classic nerdy dreamer. What fantastic film fantasies await Mr. Mitty in the twenty-first century?

The 2013 incarnation of Mitty (Stiller) peruses an online dating site as he prepares to head to work. It just so happens that a co-worker he’s noticed, Cheryl Meloff (Kristen Wiig) has a profile on said site. Walter’s much too shy to say hello at the office so he attempts to contact her online, but is, of course, thwarted by technology. Finally arriving at his job at the offices of Life magazine, he’s greeted by his flakey, aspiring-actress sister Odessa (Kathryn Hahn) who wishes him a happy birthday, drops off a “Clementine” cake, and reminds him that they must meet up later to help their mother Edna (Shirley MacLaine) move into her new place. After she leaves, some co-workers mention the news that the magazine has been taken over by new management. This is confirmed by new supervisor Ted (Adam Scott). After a clumsy first meeting, Walter heads down to the massive photo library where he receives a sheet of negatives (no digital stuff for him!) from legendary globe-trotting photo-journalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). But the sheet is missing one negative. And it’s the one he’s alerted the new owners about! And it ‘s the one that the new owners want as the cover photo of the final print edition before the mag goes online!. What’s Walter to do? There’s no way to contact Sean online or via phone! This quest sends the timid office drone on a journey around the globe that might just put his daydreams to shame.

This is very different Ben Stiller here than we’ve seen on-screen before. There’s no hint of Mr. Furious from MYSTERY MEN or any of the wild supporting characters from whacked-out farces such as his DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY. His Walter is closer to the everymen he essayed in THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY and the MUSEUM flicks (and of course Gaylord Focker from the wildly popular comic trilogy), but without any of their energy. Of course he’s supposed to be just coasting through life early in the film, but even as he eases away from the daydreams, Walter still feels oddly detached. He’s much more compelling a character during the fantasy sequences. The same can be said for Wiig as his love interest. Her manic comedic skills she displayed in BRIDESMAIDS and several years of “Saturday Night Live” are almost muffled here as she pops up in between Walter’s travels. Their roles are so bland that any sparks between the actors are canceled out. This is also the case for Penn as the old school photog (think the hero of REAR WINDOW pre-accident) whose quirks serve as the plot catalyst and whose cameo amounts to becoming a Yoda-like sage to the weary Walter. Happily a couple of comic pros get a bit of a chance to grab some laughs. Hahn is great as the single-minded stage geeks while Patton Oswald has a lot of funky charm as one of Walter’s new pals. And then there’s Adam Scott far from the nice-guy roles in FRIENDS WITH KIDS and TV’s “Parks and Recreations” as the corporate creep with the crisp suits and precisely trimmed beard who immediately makes Walter his bullying target while relishing the chance to downsize Mr. M and his co-worker pals. This devious demented “d-bag” gives the flick a jolt of maniacal energy whenever he and his similarly bearded toadies appear.

Well, the film is certainly not a remake of the 1940’s classic or really a straight adaptation of the original Thurber story, so we wonder why the Mitty name is attached to this rather bland, meandering  live-action family flick offering. Perhaps the name could lure people in with the promise of all-out flights of fancy (Danny Kaye never cavorted in CGI worlds). This is a bit of a bait and switch since these sequences are done well before the film’s midpoint. A satire of a recent film fantasy/drama/romance and an epic action smackdown between Walter and Ted (which is a pretty potent parody of recent blockbuster “destruction porn”) are fairly entertaining until we’re stuck next to Walter as he meanders through exotic locales and tedious set-pieces (evading a shark…check…skateboarding away from an erupting volcano…eh,check). And all the while Stiller’s inserting constant product placement (what is this, MAN OF STEEL 2?) besides the Life magazine setting (which seems to be out of a 1950’s time warp, what modern mag has offices like this?). It’s a long, long slog without much (if any) of a pay-off. Hmm, you should put yourself out there and make your real life better than your fantasy life. Uh, okay. Now, I think I’ll close my eyes and imagine a more engaging, entertaining movie that’s more worthy of the gifted Wiig and Stiller. Sweet dreams …and better films.

2 Out of 5

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Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

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