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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

(2013) * 1/2 Pg
114 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: Ben Stiller. Cast: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Patton Oswalt, Shirley MacLaine, Sean Penn.

/content/films/4631/1.jpgThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty, reborn as a flashy but soppy new adventure directed by and starring Ben Stiller, works out to be sentimental claptrap about (to paraphrase one of its characters) "courage and going into the unknown."

James Thurber's 1939 short story is near-unrecognizable here, in a Hollywood vehicle that retains no more than the title and the conceit of a daydreaming fantasist (Danny Kaye starred in an only slightly more faithful 1947 extrapolation). Stiller's Mitty works as a "negative asset manager" for Life Magazine, just before its cessation of print publication. The use of Life and its credo “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, to draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of Life" is an admittedly clever bit of punnery, which allows sight gags like "The End of Life" and "Life Online," the magazine's digital future.

This Mitty isn't married, but a single sad sack pining for co-worker Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig, forced, unfortunately, to play a blank-slate single mom). Mitty has a wacky actress sister (Kathryn Hahn) and a pleasantly doting mother (Shirley MacLaine, here for prestige and basic plot function only). As Life readies for its last issue, Mitty's responsible for its Holy Grail final cover snap, sent in by star photojournalist Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn). Only trouble is: Mitty can't seem to find the negative in question.

Having just turned the corner of 42, and being almost accidentally egged on by Cheryl and the absent but inspirational adventurer O'Connell, Mitty begins a globe-trotting quest to find his hero and the photo in question. Once and only once, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty achieves some romantic uplift when Mitty dreams of Cheryl and literally takes flight, but most of the time, the picture strains to make any kind of sense, much less entertain.

There's a broad message to seize the day, but the story's raison d'etre, the fantasies, are unfunny and almost entirely silly, lacking even Thurber's cracked internal logic, and none of the characters cut believable figures, not even Mitty, who's in every scene. Instead of being a man who's never lived and never will, except in his dreams, he's now a guy who was once a mohawked skateboarder and reconnects with his inner daredevil. Stiller layers on artpop and wacky supertitles, but the insistent product placement reveals this one for what it is: an expensive commercial for time, life, and some of the many corporations that have passed through that landmark building Time & Life.

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