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NEW YORK – A lyrical comic fable about releasing the exceptional qualities trapped within ordinary people, Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty expands upon the classic James Thurber short story, updating it to the age of corporate downsizing and dehumanizing job elimination. Premiering at the New York Film Festival ahead of Fox’s wide Christmas Day release, the film’s pleasures may be too minor-key and its pace too meandering to conquer the mainstream. But audiences willing to tune in to its blend of surreal fantasy, droll comedy and poignancy will be rewarded.
Originally published in The New Yorker in 1939, Thurber’s 2½-page story entered the American lexicon; the title character’s name became a byword for an ineffectual person who indulges in escapist heroic daydreaming. After contributing script notes that went unused, Thurber distanced himself from the 1947 film version, which became a sideshow for star Danny Kaye to exhibit his gifts in comedic or musical vignettes that more often than not brought the story to a halt.
The remake project has kicked around for years, at various times attracting interest from directors including Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard. And while Stiller’s version is too tonally diffuse to be fully satisfying, it’s nonetheless a valid take on the material, using Thurber’s story more as a jumping off point than a solid foundation.
Screenwriter Steven Conrad departs from both the prose source and the previous film in this new adaptation. He maintains the core theme of the liberating power of the imagination, but tethers even Walter’s most improbable fantasies to the real potential within him to fully engage with the world and be the kind of man he always dreamed of being. Doubling as director and lead actor, Stiller imbues the character with the profound yearning and gnawing frustration of a man hijacked by melancholy circumstance from being a cool kid in his youth to a meek drone in adult life. His dazed confusion as to how that happened gives heart to the understated performance.
Walter works at a contemporary incarnation of Life Magazine, the office interiors of which are recreated with Mad Men-like retro detailing by production designer Jeff Mann. The building’s sterile corridors contrast with the blown-up covers depicting great men and women, and majestic images, all of which feed Walter’s active fantasy life.
In reality, he lacks the nerve to speak to Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), a co-worker and recently separated mother who has caught his eye. But with new owners transitioning from print to digital, and a supercilious incoming manager (Adam Scott) looking to cut jobs, Walter’s window of opportunity to make a move is closing. When he inadvertently loses a negative from the magazine’s enigmatic star photojournalist, Sean O’Connell, that’s been designated for the final issue’s cover, Walter is forced to take action.
Elevated by the spectacular location work of cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, Walter’s journey takes him first to Greenland and from there to volcanic Iceland. In a second trip, he travels to the Upper Himalayas, where he finally tracks down O’Connell (an expertly judged extended cameo by Sean Penn), gleans a fresh perspective on living in the moment and gets to play soccer with sherpas.
Composer Theodore Shapiro’s score is deftly augmented with symphonic indie alt-rock and beautiful vocal tracks by neo-folkie Jose Gonzalez, breathing epic scope into what’s at heart a small New York fairy tale. While this duality is not entirely germane to the material, there’s enough idiosyncratic charm in the treatment to ride over the languorous patches of a movie that pushes close to two hours.
A jokey reference to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button at one point underlines some similarities to that film, which also mushroomed out of a work of short fiction by an iconic American writer working in a fabulist vein. Stiller’s film is altogether less grandiose and less saccharine, its sweetness emerging without undue strain. The gradual shift by which lonely Walter’s fantasies recede as his real life becomes more dynamic is modulated with disarming gentleness.
More or less playing straight man, Wiig gives a quiet, appealing performance as a woman no less thwarted by the burdens of everyday existence than Walter; her ability to see past his awkwardness adds emotional warmth. Shirley MacLaine lends a welcome grounded presence to Walter’s mother, and Patton Oswalt makes an amusing appearance as an eHarmony technician obsessively following up on Walter’s customer-service complaint.
Befitting a film in which the hero’s imaginary acts of derring-do are loosely rooted in reality, the sharp CGI sequences are integrated into the naturalistic mainframe, with crisp, bold colors giving a heightened look to the New York locations.
Venue: New York Film Festival (Centerpiece Gala)
Opens: Wednesday, Dec. 25 (Fox)
Cast: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Sean Penn, Patton Oswalt, Adrian Martinez, Olafur Darri Olafsson
Production companies: Samuel Goldwyn Films, Red Hour Films, in association with New Line Cinema
Director: Ben Stiller
Screenwriter: Steven Conrad, based on the short story by James Thurber
Producers: Samuel Goldwyn Jr., John Goldwyn, Stuart Cornfeld, Ben Stiller
Executive producers: Gore Verbinski, Meyer Gottlieb, G. Mac Brown
Director of photography: Stuart Dryburgh
Production designer: Jeff Mann
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Costume designer: Sarah Edwards
Editor: Greg Hayden
Visual effects supervisor: Guillaume Rocheron
Not yet rated, 114 minutes.
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