Film Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Splashy, effects-laden remake of the 1947 Danny Kaye romantic comedy classic about a mellow serial fantasist who sets aside dreams to take real-world action gives director/star Ben Stiller plenty to do. Results should square solidly with easy-to-please

As the holidays traditionally breed likeable trifles of many kinds, especially the most colorful and ingratiating, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, on paper at least, seems a suitable entry into the Christmas bounty of big films. Having made its world premiere as a recent New York Film Festival Centerpiece Gala selection, this broadly played and targeted fantasy-themed film now has the opportunity of meeting the real world during the fortuitous holiday period. But with a growing seasonal glut of so much choice and quality available to filmgoers (but often hurting filmmakers), significant success for Mitty may only be in its dreams.

The story unfolds in contemporary Manhattan, where Stiller’s Mitty is a vet photo librarian at Life working the magazine’s negative room housing its fabled photo archives. Although becoming an analog dinosaur, Walter’s at peace with his job but struggles on the romantic front as the shy guy can’t get to first base with work colleague Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), on whom he has a serious crush. But Cheryl, from the magazine’s accounting department, does not elude Walter in his fantasies, including those where he plays superhero to her damsel, notably one in which fired-up dreamer shows Cheryl his heroism with a rescue in a burning building.

Walter’s real-life recourse to find romance is the eHarmony website, but even as he’s mentored by site advisor Todd (Patton Oswalt), he just can’t get his profile right. But things are smooth for Walter on the home front, thanks to support from loving mother Edna (Shirley MacLaine) and kooky performance-artist sister Odessa (Kathryn Hahn).

At the office, matters turn radically grim for Walter after new corporate management imposes a transition to all-digital. Overseeing this initiative onsite is power-hungry new boss Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), a pushy, arrogant corporate jerk who becomes Walter’s nemesis big-time. Our hero’s fantasy battle with Hendricks above and through midtown streets is another of the memorable sequences.

Back in reality, Walter’s problems escalate when Hendricks orders the archivist to find the negative for the ultra-important photo that will grace the cover of Life’s final print edition. Walter scours the archive but cannot put his hands on it. His desperate solution is to travel the globe to find the picture’s famed photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), who, helpful to the plot but not Walter, is an elusive adventurer always out shooting in remote locales.

Walter puts his many fantasies aside to take meaningful action. He journeys here and there to exotic destinations (Iceland, Afghanistan, etc.) to get his man and that precious negative. Details and twists ensue (a really neat one buttons up the film), yet anyone doubting a happy ending doesn’t understand Christmas. But all undemanding fans of sweet, sweeping, romantic adventures in effects-enhanced dream worlds and faraway places will have a jolly time.

While bearing a clever concept (and handsome production), the film unintentionally challenges viewers at least once to distinguish between the hero’s flights into fantasies and his real globe-hops in search of the star shutterbug.

Stiller previously hit solid bull’s-eyes as director and star of Zoolander and Tropic Thunder, which provided some hilarious satire of the fashion scene and film biz. That level of humor is missing from Steven Conrad’s script, although Scott as the imperious boss often tickles.

Mitty does provide some eye-pleasing and popping set-pieces in rough oceans and stunning terrains (Iceland ably stood in for many foreign locales). And it does deliver considerable measures of that feel-good, goodwill spirit of the season. But is all this plus Stiller’s appeal enough to deliver box office?