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"THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY"
(2013) (Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig) (PG)


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QUICK TAKE:
Dramedy: A forty-something daydreamer experiences grand adventures and dangers for the first time in his life as he tries to track down the photo that will grace the cover of the last print edition of Life Magazine.
PLOT:
Walter Mitty (BEN STILLER) is the 42-year-old negative assets manager for Life Magazine in New York who hasn't done much with his life. When not helping his sister, Odessa (KATHRYN HAHN), prepare their mother (SHIRLEY MacLAINE) for a downsizing move, he handles the negatives that come into his office where his employer, Hernando (ADRIAN MARTINEZ), helps work on the pics taken by legendary photographer Sean O'Connell (SEAN PENN).

Unfortunately for them and everyone else there, the magazine has been acquired and corporate hatchet man, Ted (ADAM SCOTT), has arrived to make cuts that go along with the transition from print to digital. Ted isn't sure what to make of Walter, especially when the long-time employee is often lost in his own daydreams of living a more adventurous life.

The lack of that in real life concerns Todd (PATTON OSWALT), a dating website techie who tries to help Walter especially in regard to him trying to attract his new coworker, Cheryl Melhoff (KRISTEN WIIG), a recent divorcee. When Sean's negative for the last cover of Life ends up missing, Walter asks for Cheryl's help and ends up going on an unlikely and adventurous journey while trying to find the photographer and his photograph.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
The fun of most storytelling -- at least that which falls into the fiction category -- is that it's all about imagination. Regardless of the format -- novel, song, poem, TV show, movie and, yes, even some video games -- the sky (and then some) really is the limit in terms of the world that's created and the characters, storylines and themes that make up that related universe.

That said, once that particular environment is decided upon, created and then established, then everything that takes place inside there has to adhere to the parameters and related rules. If any of that doesn't (such as, for example, a spaceship suddenly showing up in something even as wildly imaginative as "The Wizard of Oz") it's immediately noticed as incongruous by the reader, listener or viewer.

To get around that, storytellers sometimes insert fantasy moments into their works. No, not of the Cinemax variety, but instead where put-upon, bored and/or frustrated characters imagine acting out in a way that's quite unlike their normal operating procedures. You know, such as when the worker bee suddenly stands up to the demanding boss, often in an exaggerated way that initially shocks the audience until they realize it only happened inside the character's head.

That storytelling technique has been around forever, and while I don't know exactly when its first use occurred, one of the earlier and more notable instances of that was in James Thurber's 1939 short story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." In that, the mild-manner titular figure escaped from his doldrums by imagining himself as a Navy pilot, a brilliant surgeon, a deadly assassin and a RAF flier on a suicide mission. The work was so popular that the character's name entered the popular lexicon to describe such daydreamers.

Not surprisingly, Hollywood took notice and made a film adaptation of the story, a 1947 movie starring Danny Kaye featuring updated daydreams but the same general thematic thrust. Ever since then, filmmakers, stars and studios have gone through many revolving doors of trying to launch a remake of that film. Among those tagged and/or actually signing up to play the title character have been Jim Carrey, Owen Wilson, Mike Myers and even Sacha Baron Cohen. In 2011, Ben Stiller became the latest actor attached to the project, and now 66 years after we last saw the daydreaming protagonist, he returns to the screen in the remake, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."

Stiller not only plays that meek and mild man, but he also directs the film, using both viewpoints on the character to explore mid-life crises and related existentialism. It's Stiller's fifth time behind the camera and comes off as something of a follow-up companion piece to his first film, "Reality Bites" and its look at the disenfranchised lives of young adults.

Not surprisingly, screenwriter Steve Conrad ("The Pursuit of Happyness," "The Weather Man") has again updated the daydreaming elements while maintaining the themes and eventual transition to real-life adventures for the character that occurred in both the story and original cinematic adaptation. That's all fine and dandy, but for a film about imagination and where most anything and everything is available to be picked and included in the offering, the imaginative parts come up far short -- at least in my opinion -- of what they could have been.

When we first meet Stiller's incarnation of the character, he's on an Internet dating site where he realizes he has nothing with which to populate the life experiences field. Accordingly, while he's later waiting for a subway train to arrive, he imagines running down the elevated platform, leaping through the air and crashing into the window of an adjacent building, all to rescue a dog and get others out before an explosion erupts behind him.

Surprisingly, when his sister (Kathryn Hahn) announces she's trying out for the part of Rizzo in a low-end version of "Grease," Mitty doesn't suddenly go all Danny "Greased Lighting" Zuko inside his head (perhaps they couldn't get the rights). Instead, we later get a brief bit of him daydreaming about being a swarthy arctic explorer, all the better to knock the secret girl of his dreams (Kristen Wiig) off her feet. That's followed by a Manhattan "street surfing" battle between him and his demeaning and downsizing happy boss (Adam Scott) over an old Stretch Armstrong action figure.

The film eventually settles down into its main plot about Mitty being a 35mm film negative assets manager for Life Magazine who must find the missing negative from a famous photographer (Sean Penn) that's going to grace the magazine's last print edition cover. That starts the transition from daydreamer to doer as the protagonist must buck up as he goes on a partial globetrotting excursion to find the legendary shooter to discover the whereabouts of that one pic.

It's during one moment of that where the film's best daydream occurs. And that's when Mitty is in a small Icelandic bar and has wisely refused to catch a ride with a drunken helicopter pilot who's heading off to a cargo ship sailing through rough seas. Mitty suddenly imagines Wiig's character doing a solo rendition of David Bowie's "Major Tom" that inspires him to take action. It's a wonderfully done scene and it only makes you wish the film contained more such emotionally rousing moments.

What's present isn't bad by any means, and Stiller as the helmer comes up with some fun directorial flourishes that cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh then creatively puts on film (the opening credits are also done nicely, with fun placement of the various names and roles on various city elements). It's just that as a collective whole, much of the film exudes a "meh" reaction rather than one of wonderment or excitement. And that's not the sort of reaction one wants when an endless supply of imaginative possibilities is within reach of the storyteller. Decent but nothing more, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed December 3, 2013 / Posted December 25, 2013


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