'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' review: Call me manipulated

'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty'

'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' (December 16, 2013)

*** (out of four)

The movie critic part of me takes issue with the blunt uplift of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" -- that star/director Ben Stiller, pushing for epic life affirmation, needed to cue impulsive airport travel to Arcade Fire and an Icelandic bike ride to Of Monsters and Men. (Clearly the filmmaker finds Sigur Ros, also from Iceland, too abstract.) Zero people will walk out after "Walter Mitty" and ask, "So what was that movie about?"

The non-critical part of me, however, rejoices in the abundance of goodness in Stiller's modern adaptation of James Thurber's 1939 short story. If you can't get behind a film with such a generosity of spirit and thirst for life, I don't know what to do with you. In the film (tackled much differently in the 1947 adaptation), Walter Mitty (Stiller) frequently takes mental breaks from life. If he looks zoned out while waiting for a train, that's because he's fantasizing about saving his colleague Cheryl's (Kristen Wiig, lovely) three-legged dog from an exploding building. His lack of focus understandably doesn't go over well with the smarmy jerk (Adam Scott) brought in to oversee layoffs and the final print edition of Life Magazine. Maybe Walter, who's handled the negatives of the magazine's photos for the past 16 years, can save his job if he can find the missing image that legendary photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) claims is a classic.

Slight problem: Sean lives off the grid and can't be located easily. So Walter, who skips the "Been there, done that" section of his eHarmony profile because he hasn't been anywhere or done anything, may actually need to get out of his head and into the world.

Steve Conrad's ("The Pursuit of Happyness") funny script has fun with Walter's perception, even if the guy transitions a bit too easily from 9-to-5 suit-and-tie guy to a world traveler fending off sharks with his briefcase. Considering the emphasis on the role Walter's late father played in his life, it's a mistake to leave out events to which Walter's active mind must frequently return. And a mishandled closing note about the beauty of the human experience lands about 100 yards from the perfection and power of Spike Jonze's far more thoughtful meditation on contemporary living, "Her."

For anyone who often strives to live in the moment and align fantasy with reality, "Walter Mitty" is almost like a booth offering free hugs. Especially around the holidays, a warm embrace is hard to resist.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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