The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

I love Danny Kaye. The Classic Hollywood star was uber-talented — from his patter-singing to his dancing to his comedy. He was even an attractive male lead in many of his films. But I have to admit that his trademark schlemiel characters could wear a bit thin sometimes. His Walter Mitty, for instance, who was a downtrodden dreamer, with a mean mama and even meaner fiancée, was a bit too put-upon at times. His Mitty is entertaining, but sometimes it's hard to believe how through some funny running gags and songs he is able to escape his milquetoast existence and turn his Technicolor dreams (most including the lusciously lovely Virginia Mayo) into reality.

Nice guy Walter (Ben Stiller) is out of step with the new regime
Maybe new girl at work Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) and Walter could connect


The recently released The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is not so much a remake of Kaye's 1947 film as it is an update. Both film's depart from James Thurber's The New Yorker 1939 short story, which depicted the dreamy, married (and henpecked) Mitty. Ben Stiller, who both stars as Mitty and directed the film, gives his version of the character an entirely different spin. He is still a dreamer, but he has a backstory that inspires not ridicule, but empathy. The audience gradually learns that after his father died when he was a teenager, young Walter took on the responsibility of providing for his mom (Shirley MacLaine) and sister (Kathryn Hahn). For many years he has been working in the basement photo archives of Life magazine, helping choose the most adventurous images for its covers, frequently provided by globe-trotting and award-winning photojournalist Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn, in a small, but great role, probably one of the calmest, least tortured, most relatable, characters of his career). Life is being dismantled and turned into an online-only magazine by a cadre of bearded, nasty villains led by Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott). Not only is Walter's job in jeopardy, but that of his colleague Hernando (Adrian Martinez) and the new girl at work, who has become the object of his fantasies, single mom Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig).

With a little encouragement from Cheryl, Walter goes on an adventure to track one of Sean's missing images — and the potential final print cover for Life — and his dream world quickly pales in comparison to his own travels. Tracking Sean takes Walter from Greenland to Iceland to Afghanistan, where he not only witnesses such wonders as an erupting volcano, but has the chance to remember his own youthful wild days and dreams. Walter Mitty even has one musical number, a la Danny Kaye — when Walter imagines Cheryl as a troubadour, spurring him on his travels (with more than a little help from David Bowie and his song "Space Oddity.")

Walter rediscovers some of his forgotten skills in Iceland
Walter finally gets to see his "partner" Sean (Sean Penn) in person

The pace of the movie is sometimes as dreamy as its protagonist. Viewers will be rewarded by little moments, like watching an earnest Walter showing Cheryl's son how to use a skateboard, and not showing off, but exhibiting some pretty expressive skills, while an oblivious Cheryl chats on a phone nearby. Stiller is just as home here in this sometimes quiet, contemplative film as he is in the over-the-top comedies that fans have come to expect from him, like Night at the Museum and those silly Fockermovies. There are a few great sequences, dream and otherwise, utilizing CGI, but impressive visual panoramas are a bigger focus than action sequences. Walter Mitty is about middle age, and not forgetting who you are or who you wanted to be. And being able to write some new adventures for yourself in the process. It's a sweet film.

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