'I haven't really been anywhere noteworthy or mentionable," an apologetic Walter Mitty tells the guy on the phone from eHarmony, who's wondering why Walter has left so much blank space on his dating profile.
By the end of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty - Ben Stiller's almost magical comic adventure - Walter has, of course, logged enough miles and wild experiences to fill a book, or a freewheeling, feel-good holiday movie. Adapted from the famous 1939 James Thurber short story (and taking bits and pieces from the 1947 Danny Kaye film), Stiller stars in and directs this modern-day tale of a milquetoast magazine assistant whose dream life gets the better of him.
Talk about escapist fare! How about a superhero faceoff across midtown Manhattan, flying through the air, banging into buildings, bringing traffic to a screeching halt? And who better for Walter to do battle against than the smug new boss (a droll, drippy Adam Scott) presiding over the demise of the place where Walter works: that 20th-century icon, Life magazine?
Newly acquired by a bunch of glib suits (with matching beards) and heading for an online-only existence, Life is the perfect metaphor for Walter, who toils way back in the room where the negatives are stored. He's in charge of an archive of extraordinary images, documenting historic events, places, and people, and yet he hasn't been party to, or visited, or known any of them.
As a mild-mannered worker bee with limited social skills, Walter eyes his coworker Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) from afar - but doesn't get far with her in their few awkward exchanges. Instead, he just imagines himself coming to her rescue, or wowing her with his bravery and athleticism.
Beautifully shot (on real film, in real locations), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty finds our hapless hero on a quest - to turn up a lost negative submitted by one of Life's star shooters (Sean Penn in a small but significant turn). Hence, Walter jumping out of a helicopter into the storm-tossed North Atlantic. Hence, Walter longboarding down the sloping blacktop of an Icelandic lava-scape. Hence, and hence again.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is about finding the courage, taking the leap, getting out of your comfort zone. Disappointingly, Stiller's film falls back into its own comfort zone of Hollywood formula. In its third act, the film loses some of its pop, its surprise.
But the momentum Stiller has built up - his character's globe-trotting derring-do, the care and consideration on display in his directing - carries the movie a long way. Falling short of fantastic, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is still a fantasy to enjoy.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
*** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Ben Stiller. With Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, and Adam Scott. Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox.
Running time: 1 hour, 54 mins.
Parent's guide: PG (violence, profanity, adult themes).
Playing at: Opens Wednesday at area theaters.