Tuesday, December 24, 2013

An uneventful life gets busy

Despite fine flourishes, this Walter Mitty doesn't quite fly.
In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller -- as director and star -- works hard to present an offbeat story about a timid man who finally learns to merge his vivid imagination with reality.

Early on, we learn that Walter's the opposite of the guy in Dos Equis commercial: He's the world's least interesting man. Walter's life is so uneventful that he can't think of a single thing to say about himself when he enrolls in eHarmony. He's an anonymous dullard.

I suppose that's the movie's challenge: How do you make an interesting movie about a boring guy?

Stiller's Walter Mitty shouldn't be seen as a remake of the 1947 movie starring Danny Kaye or a faithful adaptation of the 1939 James Thurber story in which Mitty first appeared. It's a new take on old material -- albeit not an entirely successful one.

At its best, Stiller's movie has a pleasingly fanciful quality. It also mixes humor (a jab at The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Button is particularly well-aimed) with a growing onslaught of action-oriented special effects.

For all that effort, the movie's best bits have less to with bold adventure than with smaller incidents. On an elevator in his New York office building, Mitty imagines that he insults his boss's beard, an unsightly affair that makes the man (Adam Scott) look like an incongruous mixture of American Gothic and Brooks Brothers.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty takes place during the waning days of Life magazine, a publication to which Walter has devoted his career. He's in charge of cataloging and keeping track of the magazine's vast photo library.

As it turns out, Life has been taken over by a company that's intent on closing the publication. The final cover is to be a photograph taken by the legendary photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), a character who remains unseen until the film's final act.

O'Connell sends his negative to Life's New York's headquarters, but Mitty and his assistant (Adrian Martinez) lose track of it.

Under pressure from management, Mitty intensifies his search and ultimately takes a bold leap. He leaves New York and travels to the Iceland, the Himalayas and Afghanistan to find O'Connell, who makes a point of being unreachable.

To accept all this you have to forget that photography has gone digital and that toward its demise, Life magazine hardly occupied a pivotal position in American culture.

Before his departure from Manhattan, Mitty visits his mother (Shirley MacLaine) and his sister (Kathryn Hahn). He also tries to spark a relationship with a co-worker (Kristin Wiig) who has a young son, one of the few characters to whom Walter is able to relate.

To win the woman of his dreams, Mitty must chart a course of derring-do in which he sheds the cocoon of shyness that has been suffocating him most of his life.

Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh tends to give Mitty a big-movie feel as Walter leaps from helicopters and engages in other exploits, but Walter Mitty never really hits its stride.

By the time, Walter hooks up with the elusive O'Connell we're ready for a finale that's a little more impactful than the one Stiller delivers in what begins to feel like an overly contrived attempt to marry whimsy and adventure. In truth, it's pretty much a shotgun wedding.

Stiller has directed before (Tropic Thunder, Zoolander, The Cable Guy and Reality Bites), and it's encouraging to watch him try to step off the beaten track. But this increasingly middling movie seems to have been aiming for a lot more than it's able to deliver.

Besides, in these CGI-dominated days, the average Walter Mitty doesn't need to overwork his imagination: All he has to is go to the movies and let Hollywood take care of the heavy lifting.

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