`Walter Mitty' fades, due to the secret life of Ben Stiller

James Thurber's very short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," which occupied just 2½ New Yorker pages in 1939, gained such a beloved place in American life and language that its title character has his own dictionary entry as "a painfully ordinary man/milquetoast, given to heroic daydreams rather than involvement in the real world."

Along comes actor-director Ben Stiller with the (noble or ignoble?) goal of "opening it up" and turning a whimsical miniature into a comic epic -- starring himself.

Mr. Stiller's Walter is a photo editor at the late great Life magazine, in its sad process of being folded into an online digital archive. As the nicely titled "Negative Assets Manager," zoned-out Walter is in charge of all historic photos but has managed to lose the crucial image planned for the cover of the mag's last glorious issue.

A dazzling title sequence heralds similar CGI values to come. Walter's whole obsolete department, including Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), the female object of his eye, are being "phased out of Time & Life" in more ways than one. But she, and the rage of his new boss (Adam Scott), will fire up his fantasies for love and vindication.

Their meet-cute business goes on and on, well beyond cuteness. She has a skateboarding son, whom Walter can teach a thing or two. (Mr. Stiller, in real life, evidently has serious SB skills that will come in handy, if incongruously, later.) Cheryl, for her part, will serenade him with David Bowie's "Space Oddity," the film's unlikely theme song -- Ground Control to Major Ben, boosting his surreal takeoff to Iceland-cum-Greenland for the discovery of Adventure and Courage and ...

I don't know ... I've tried, God knows I've tried: I just can't get into Ben Stiller. I feel guilty saying this, and on Christmas! He's such as good guy philanthropically, especially in regard to Haiti relief. He loves his parents (Stiller & Meara) -- so do I. But there's a diffident one-dimensional stiffness about him in real life that translates on screen into -- diffident one-dimensional stiffness. His halting delivery, his humor and his romantic appeal are acquired tastes.

I acquired it for his characters in "There's Something About Mary" and the "Meet the Parents" series, and for his direction of the outrageous action satire "Tropic Thunder" (2008), a cornucopia of hilarious bad taste about Vietnam movies, in which Robert Downey Jr. has his skin surgically darkened to play a black sergeant. (No fewer than 22 disability groups called for a boycott of its grotesque sendups of the handicapped.)

Mr. Stiller is good in an ensemble. But carrying his own vehicle, while directing it, is another matter. Eschewing Thurber's satirical tone, he plays it "earnest." Previous efforts to film "Mitty" with Jim Carrey, Mike Myers and Sacha Baron Cohen all fell through. They all would've been better.

The sublime Icelandic backdrops help distract from the deficiencies of Steven Conrad's screenplay, which downplays comedy in favor of the existential crisis. The gorgeous scenery and belching volcanoes make you wanna go there to visit. Not so, the Himalayan scenes with the weird Afghan warlords leading up to the climax.

At 18,000 feet, says Walter, his mind is "drifting like the snow." So is our attention. The payoff -- in the form of that missing negative -- is a letdown.

We do get a nice turn from the immortal Shirley MacLaine as Walter's soulful mom, and from Patton Oswalt as Walter's contact at eHarmony, in a running series of customer-support calls to that online dating service.

But trying to combine fantasy, romance, comedy, escapist adventure and inspirational self-discovery results in a mixed bag of ersatz redemption -- with soaring, sentimental songs to drive home every emotion. There also seems to be a plethora of commercial branding, from Time-Life to Papa John's Pizza.

It's all well -- but too grandly -- intentioned. "Stop dreaming, start living!" the film and its trailers tell us. Good advice in general, I suppose. Or is it? And who cares about good advice?

It's just the opposite of Thurber's message -- which was neither inspirational, nor uplifting, nor romantic, nor redemptive. Any similarity between this movie and James Thurber's story is not just coincidental but accidental. It's like turning Quasimodo into a football player, transporting him to Indiana, and calling it "The Quarterback (based on the Hunchback) of Notre Dame."



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