By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Here’s an ordinary guy in ordinary circumstances with extraordinary daydreams.
That’s the premise of the second movie version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
It’s a remake of a 1947 Danny Kaye comedy based on a very short (2½-page) 1939 short story of the same title by humorist James Thurber, originally published in The New Yorker, about a milquetoast who daydreams to avoid painful or disappointing reality.
So the iconic daydreamer lives more or less vicariously and envisions himself in a series of heroic, fantastic, escapist adventures, while we admit the word “mittyesque” to our language.
Walter Mitty is played by Ben Stiller, who has acquitted himself very nicely thus far as a director of himself and others (Reality Bites, The Cable Guy, Zoolander, Tropic Thunder).
In this outing, mild-mannered Mitty is a photo editor for Life magazine, which is about to publish its final issue as it transitions from print to digital (the real-life Life ceased publication as a standalone mag in 2000) and many of its employees are about to be out of work.
When the photo negative chosen for Life’s farewell-issue cover — taken by Sean O’Connell, an Arctic explorer and the reimagined magazine’s most prominent and accomplished photojournalist (Sean Penn) — goes missing, Walter must find it.
And he’ll be darned if the colleague who offers to help him do so, Cheryl, played by Kristen Wiig, isn’t the woman Walter has had a huge crush on but has not been able, amidst fantasies galore that he concocts while staring at her from afar, to approach.
Hey, how ’bout that! Sometimes dreams do come true!
Suddenly, this heretofore timid urbanite, an everyman who yearns to be a superhero, is not so much wishing he were someone else (such as the “adventurous, brave, and creative” type Cheryl prefers, according to her dating profile) but wishing that a more adventurous version of himself could take charge.
And sure enough, that Mitty-plus appears as the star of his own international hallucinations: skateboarding, leaping out of helicopters, swimming with sharks, approaching an erupting volcano, and gallivanting around Iceland, Greenland, and Afghanistan.
Stiller is appealing and fine in the title role, and Wiig and Penn make unfussy and appropriate contributions in support.
Also registering on the valuable-contributions scale are Shirley MacLaine as Walter’s mom, Kathryn Hahn as his sister, Adam Scott as a villainous corporate honcho, and Patton Oswalt as his online dating agent.
Director Stiller’s take on the material, from a screenplay by Steven Conrad that merely uses Thurber’s source material as a springboard, is much less of an out-and-out comedy than its predecessor.
Instead, it blends humor devoted to smiles and quiet laughs with pathos and stirring action-adventure sequences as it explores not only the chase-your-dreams spirit but also the contemporary phenomenon of depersonalized if not coldhearted corporate downsizing.
Walter’s surreal fantasies are entertaining in and of themselves, characterized by graceful, inventive, and technically accomplished flights-of-fancy CGI work, and the protagonist’s emergence from anonymity generates a substantial number of uplifting or poignant bittersweet moments.
However, the lengthy dips in the product-placement pool are a bit much.
So we’ll daydream 3 stars out of 4 for the family-friendly, PG-rated The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a whimsical and warmly earnest comic fable that builds a bridge over troubled Walter.