A version of this review appears in Wednesday’s The Oklahoman. 3 1/2 of 4 stars
Actor/director Ben Stiller augments his expected comedic stylings with surprising warmth and optimism while giving a rare but well-rounded dramatic performance in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”
Working from a script by Steve Conrad (“The Pursuit of Happyness”), Stiller casts himself in the title role of his earnest and insightful adaptation of James Thurber’s short story. A one-time skateboard champion whose plans for a life of adventure were waylaid by circumstance, his mild-mannered Walter Mitty has spent much of his adult life in a dingy basement as the “negative assets” manager for Life magazine.
Despite his vast and fertile imagination, Walter can’t even work up the nerve to ask out Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), the charming new girl in his office, and when he tries online dating just to connect with her, he admits to the customer service representative (Patton Oswalt) that he left most of the profile blank because he hasn’t done anything or been anywhere “noteworthy or mentionable.”
The avid day-dreamer mostly lives vicariously through his working relationship with globe-trotting freelance photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), who appreciates Walter’s dedication to his craft. When Life is acquired by a penny-pinching firm, though, Walter is saddled with a snarky new boss (Adam Scott) and the almost certain prospect of losing his job, especially when management tells the staff to start preparing the very last issue of the magazine (which in real life halted print publication in 2000 and was later briefly revived as a newspaper supplement).
Sean has entrusted the cover photograph for the final edition to Walter, but when the negative roll arrives, the chosen image, No. 25, is missing. If he wants to save the issue, the meek drone must leave the safety of his office and track Sean to Greenland, Iceland and beyond.
Along with turning in a nuanced performance, Stiller proves he has developed a keen ear and eye as a filmmaker. The stellar soundtrack includes contributions from David Bowie, Arcade Fire and Of Monsters and Men.
He and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh bring a photojournalist’s sensibility to their glorious rendering of Walter’s country-hopping journey, and with the special effects team, they create a pavement-surfing fantasy sequence that will be the envy of many a comic-book moviemaker.
For fans who love Stiller’s audacious sense of humor, the movie’s nod to “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” will have them laughing until their guts hurt in the midst of the heartwarming story about actually living life instead of timidly letting it pass us by.