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Midlife Gap Year

MOVIE REVIEW
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

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Wilson Webb/20th Century Fox

Based on the classic James Thurber story of the same name as well as being an update of the 1947 film starring Danny Kaye, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” centers on the title character (Ben Stiller), a middle-aged man who works in the photographic department of Life magazine, but who seems detached from the world around him. Walter is a daydreamer who drifts off on sudden flights of fancy without warning to the amusement and bemusement of those around him, including Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), a colleague he yearns for, and a sarcastic corporate representative (Adam Scott) who mocks him.

However, when a crucial picture taken by mysterious globe-trotting photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) goes missing, Walter makes a life-changing decision. With childhood dreams of travel in his head, and inspired by Cheryl — with whom he strikes up a friendship — Walter embarks on a trip around the world that to find the missing picture. As Walter travels the globe and gets involved in a variety of extraordinary scenarios that match his daydreams, he looks back on his life and ponders the future.

Mr. Stiller both stars in and directs this film, which aims to be more of a serious drama rather than the comedies he is most known for. While Mr. Stiller has directed both serious and comic films — with “Reality Bites” an example of the former and “Zoolander” the latter — and even though he has mixed the two styles to striking effect in “The Cable Guy,” the combination here doesn’t quite gel here. There are moments when “Walter Mitty” goes for broad comedy, but these parts feel oddly out of place when the tone of the film aims to be serious much of the time.

One scene in particular, a skit on “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” plays like a deleted scene from “Tropic Thunder” rather than a scenario dreamed up by Walter. On the other hand, for a film that centers on the life of a fantasist, there are surprisingly few fantasy sequences. The longer the film goes on — and the more Walter ventures into the real world — the more the fantasies recede. This approach makes sense in context of the film, but the real world story feels a little flat and lifeless, despite the eye-catching locations on display.

Mr. Stiller is likable in the main role, but there isn’t quite the glint in his eyes when he’s off on his adventures around the world. There are elements of James Stewart’s character from “It’s a Wonderful Life” in Walter. Like Stewart’s character George Bailey, Walter’s youthful dreams of travel were curtailed by circumstances beyond his control, which are a source of frustration. George was a likable everyman who dreamed big and had a thirst for adventure, despite the setbacks he encountered. This desire doesn’t come across in Walter, though — even though he dreams big, and it just feels like he’s going through less of struggle.

The name-dropping of brands throughout the film is distracting, with the product placement intruding on the drama. A couple of references are woven into the plot as comments on Walter’s past and future, but they feel like advertising opportunities being explored rather than elements of Walter’s life being revealed. There are other indicators of Walter’s character that are more effective, such as the moment where he demonstrates his hitherto unseen skateboarding skills to Cheryl’s son (Marcus Antturi), which hints that there is more to Walter than people know.

Shirley Maclaine as Walter’s mother and Kathryn Hahn as his sister are welcome presences in the film, but they don’t have much to do beyond offering some mild comic relief and moral support for Walter in times of crisis. Ms. Wiig fares better, sketching a convincing character in relatively little screen time. However, the scene-stealing performance in the film is given by Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, playing a seemingly permanently inebriated helicopter pilot in Greenland, a character who looks like he has been battered by numerous disappointments in life but who has the resolve — and an awareness of the absurdities that life can bring — to keep going.

The “Benjamin Button” gag in “Walter Mitty” is interesting, in that director David Fincher’s film also employs great technical feats to tell a remarkable life story. However, both films feel cold and remote, as if the numerous locales and a big budget are weighing down the story rather than liberating it. “Walter Mitty” feels like a tale of midlife crisis tale in stasis. A film like “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” was a more buoyant and distinctive tale of middle-aged male malaise, a condition that the main character overcomes while going on an adventure around the world.

The trip in “Walter Mitty” feels like an extended holiday rather than a spiritual journey. It’s a pity that the mystery of the missing picture is so prominent, as it’s an oddly uninvolving plot (and the payoff of what is in the picture ends up being rather obvious). The photo is really the Hitchcockian MacGuffin, a means to get Walter on his journey and enable him to find meaning in his life. Some moments are effective, such as the conversations between Walter and Cheryl, which have the authentic feel of two people slowly getting to know each other and becoming friends. These little bits of life that crop between the bigger sequences are the moments that ultimately linger in the mind.

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY

Opens on Dec. 25 in the United States and on Dec. 26 in Britain.

Directed by Ben Stiller; written by Steven Conrad, based on the short story by James Thurber; director of photography, Stuart Dryburgh; edited by Greg Hayden; music by Theodore Shapiro; production design by Jeff Mann; costumes by Sarah Edwards; produced by Mr. Stiller, Samuel Goldwyn Jr., John Goldwyn and Stuart Cornfeld; released by 20th Century Fox. Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes. This film is rated PG by M.P.A.A. and B.B.F.C.

WITH: Ben Stiller (Walter Mitty), Kristen Wiig (Cheryl), Shirley MacLaine (Edna), Adam Scott (Ted Hendricks), Kathryn Hahn (Odessa), Sean Penn (Sean O’Connell) and Patton Oswalt (Todd Maher).

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