Say what you want about Ben Stiller’s choice of starring roles, the man can direct the hell out of a movie. While his spot in the director’s chair may be few and far between — see Reality Bites, The Cable Guy, Zoolander, and Tropic Thunder — it should come as no surprise to see a high level of craftsmanship brought to his latest endeavor: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Remaking the 1947 Danny Kaye film — itself based on James Thurber’s 1939 short story — Stiller seems to have the same problem as his protagonist of having big dreams without the ambition. I blame the film’s shortcomings on the fact that Stiller didn’t write the film —Steve Conrad did— but that didn’t stop him from making The Cable Guy nothing short of a cult classic. (That one wasn’t written by him either.)
The real life of Walter Mitty (Stiller) involves zoning out and lots of daydreaming. The first time we see this happen he misses his train to the city as he hears a fire truck nearby and leaps from the train station through the air, hurtling through a building window and saves a dog from a fire. More of these outrageous sequences are to come.
Walter works at Life magazine which is coming to an end. Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott) has been brought in to downsize the print department as the magazine heads online. Walter has received a package from photojounalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) including a wallet as a gift and film negatives featuring an elusive number 25 that has gone missing but Sean says will be top consideration for the last magazine cover. Now, Walter uses the help of unrequited office love interest Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) to track Sean down and find the missing negative.
Turning the film into a travelogue, Stiller takes Walter to Greenland where his childhood love of skateboarding almost gets him killed in a volcano eruption, but not after a trip on a helicopter with a drunken pilot, and fighting a shark. A set piece featuring a street fight between Walter and Ted rips off Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but has the kind of energy the film starts lacking once Walter heads off on his mission to find Sean.
I won’t even get started on the technological inaccuracies running rampant. Something most viewers won’t even notice anyway. Stiller and Wiig make an appealing romantic couple and Scott is hilarious as the office jerk who cares more about how he’s going to explain things to the executives than the staff. Unfortunately, the film has bigger intentions than Stiller knows what to do with, but as one of few family-oriented films being released this holiday season, at least it’s a better than usual option. And seeing how The Secret Life of Walter Mitty features an oceanic shark fight, it still has that going for it.
Photo courtesy 20th Century Fox