‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ ***
Marketed as Ben Stiller’s bend toward drama, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” finds the actor, who also directed the feature, seemingly exuding super-human strength while jumping between buildings and battling his nemesis as they surf asphalt.
The lampoon-like scenarios seem far too fanciful when attempting to take Stiller seriously. But these are just the narratives the title character weaves in his mind. In reality, Walter Mitty, played by a poised and sincere Stiller, is an insecure photo editor with an affinity for daydreaming.
Adapted from a short story of the same name, which was written by James Thurber and published in 1939 in The New Yorker, the outlandish scenes in “Mitty” bring the most memorable element of the original tale – reality bending – to the forefront.
Thurber’s sarcastic narrative found Walter Mitty at odds with his bickering wife and escaping his humdrum life by daydreaming he was a war hero, surgeon and sharp shooter. The first film version, which maintained Thurber’s comedic tone, was realized in 1947. It starred Danny Kaye, who battled in that version with an overbearing mother.
In the new “Mitty,” Stiller’s Walter works at Life magazine, which is making the switch from print to digital. A brilliantly vexing Adam Scott plays Ted Hendricks, the ringleader of a band of executives who have come to supervise the completion of the final issue.
In this take, the women aren’t nags. Shirley MacLaine, who plays Stiller’s mother, Edna, and Kathryn Hahn, who plays his sister, Odessa, are pleasant and supportive. It’s Ted who acts as the villain. He takes to bullying Walter, who must pin down the negative image for the final issue’s cover. Walter consistently spaces out, especially when he’s fantasizing about his co-worker, Cheryl (played sweetly by Kristen Wiig).
Unable to locate the image, shot by a long-standing Life magazine photographer, Sean O’Connell (an explorer superbly pronounced by Sean Penn), Walter heads to Greenland where he hopes to find Sean and his coveted shot.
Once there, Walter jumps out of a helicopter only to be nearly eaten by a shark when landing in the ocean. It’s such a heart-pounding experience that even Walter wonders if what he just endured was real. But, alas, he’s finally having actual adventures, as his capacity for taking risks increases.
As we watch Walter’s world open up, we follow his journey across alluring locations like the Himalayas. When we finally meet Sean, who is perched on a mountain waiting for the perfect shot, he speaks to Walter’s evolution as he tells him he sometimes prefers to savor his personal moments instead of being distracted by his camera.