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With: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Shirley MacLaine, Sean Penn, Kathryn Hahn, Adrian Martinez, īlafur Darri īlafsson, Patton Oswalt
Written by: Steve Conrad, based on a story by James Thurber
Directed by: Ben Stiller
MPAA Rating: PG for some crude comments, language and action violence
Running Time: 114
Date: 12/25/2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Inscrutable to the Last

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

James Thurber's 1939 short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is one of those items they make everyone read in school. The difference is that it's really enjoyable, even if you're being forced. It's a very simple story of just a few pages that takes place over the course of maybe an hour as Walter Mitty goes shopping with his wife and imagines four different detailed fantasies.

In 1947 Norman Z. McLeod directed a feature movie version, starring Danny Kaye, Virginia Mayo, and Boris Karloff, which expanded the story into something more resembling a plot. Now Ben Stiller's 2013 version has expanded it even further into something that looks even less like the story, but takes an appealingly optimistic view of the world.

Stiller maybe about the same age as Mitty in the story, but in the movie he seems younger. His Walter is unmarried and responsible. He wears a short-sleeved dress shirt and tie and balances his checkbook at breakfast. He works at LIFE magazine and has a crush on a woman, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), from his office, but he's so shy and careful that he attempts to contact her through a dating website rather than in real life.

Part of the reason for the original Water's fantasy life is to escape his nagging wife. But here Walter just simply wants a way to live; in his normal existence he never takes any chances. On his way to work, he imagines jumping from a train platform into the window of a burning building and saving the woman he loves, as well as her three-legged dog.

Walter works in the dark, cave-like photo department at the magazine, with Hernando (Adrian Martinez). He processes the shots taken by the famous and intrepid Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), who is the opposite of Walter; Sean travels all over the world, sees amazing things, and has never shown his face at the office. Unfortunately, it's 2013 and LIFE magazine is turning into a website. A corporate asshole, Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), with a comically awful beard, has been sent to oversee the transition, and to fire anyone deemed unnecessary.

Sean has sent a perfect cover photo for the final issue, but unfortunately it has gone missing. In an attempt to save his job, Walter jumps on a plane to try and find Sean and the photo. This leads to a wild goose chase all over the world. As he goes, Walter's fantasies become fewer and fewer, as his real-life adventures get bigger and bigger.

And so it goes. This is Stiller's fifth film as director. His first one, Reality Bites (1994), didn't entirely work, even though it attempted to capture a certain generation at a certain point. His crazier, darker films The Cable Guy (1996) and Tropic Thunder (2008) worked much better for me, so it's a step up for Stiller to go back to being sweet and earnest without feeling too calculating.

He does misstep here and there. He paints a backstory for Walter as a fearless kid who skateboarded and wore Buzzcocks t-shirts, but the movie doesn't explain how he went from that to being so straightlaced and afraid. It feels like an actor protecting his image.

Thankfully, the movie's beautiful moments make up for its shortcomings. I like Walter's awkward conversations with Cheryl, and it certainly helps that Wiig is so lovely here, and a talented comic sounding board. I like the scenes in a bar with a drunken helicopter pilot, drinking beer out of a glass boot. I like the scenes with Shirley MacLaine as Walter's mom, and I like the scenes with Sean, sharing his simple, lovely views on beauty and life. ("That looks like fun," he says, indicating a nearby soccer game.)

In other words, I liked the small scenes better than the big ones, which is more or less the opposite of the original story's irony. Stiller's movie is irony-free, but it's sweet and affecting nonetheless. It's a sprawling work, but it seems to know when to lay aside the big visual effects-laden scenes for something more human. Actually, it's a movie that perhaps even the old Walter Mitty would have enjoyed.

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