Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Ben Stiller's update of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" achieves more of what it sets out to do than most of the better-pedigreed Christmas releases this year.

Stiller plays the daydreamer Mitty, envisioned by writer Steve Conrad as the "negative assets manager" for Life magazine, which is about to publish its last print issue. Walter wishes he could muster the courage to talk to his co-worker Cheryl (the suddenly ubiquitous Kristen Wiig), but can't even find it in him to send her a "wink" on Life's most celebrated photographer, Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) sends Walter his final roll of film, including negative 25, the surefire cover, which promptly goes missing, leaving Walter only a few clues (a photo of a thumb?) and a few days to find it. 

Thus is the stage set for a series of wish-fulfillment fantasies and actual adventures that take Walter from New York to Greenland to Iceland to Los Angeles. The best of these achieve a wistful grace or the momentum of good farce, as when Walter must jump aboard a helicopter piloted by the hulking Greenlander (Olafur Darri Olafsson) whom he just saw drink two Das Bootfuls of beer and fall off the stage of a Nuuk karaoke bar singing "Don't You Want Me." His new friend's advice: "When you live in a country of eight people, don't cheat on your lady." Less successful sequences tend toward self-inflicted wounds of a slapstick nature. But Stiller makes a surprisingly likable lead. Penn and Shirley MacLaine (as Walter's mother Edna) give blissfully muted performances. And it's always nice to see Kathryn Hahn (as his sister Odessa), Patton Oswalt (as the CSR who keeps trying to punch up his profile), and Adam Scott (as Ted Hendricks, the prick in charge of Life's transition to online).

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