The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

(On Cable TV, November 2014) On paper, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty looks like a terrific film: Ben Stiller as a dreamer forced out of his comfort zone, elaborate fantasies gradually ceding to ever-more-incredible real adventures as based on a classic James Thurber story.  There’s a lot of potential here for a meaningful film, heartfelt lessons and grandiose epiphanies.  The film’s budget is decent, allowing whatever fantasies and real-life vistas to be captured in detail.  Why, then, does the result feel so perfunctory?  While the film isn’t unpleasant to watch, it somehow fails to spark beyond mere competence.  The fantasy sequences are seamlessly integrated (and at least once escalate all the way to superhero theatrics) but even they can’t completely bring sharp humor and cutting wit into the entire production.  It probably doesn’t help that the third act drags on for so long, especially once the emotional high points of the story should have been settled.  There isn’t anything bad to say about Stiller’s direction –especially given the visual inventiveness of some sequences– although he himself may be too old to play Mitty.  (Meanwhile, Kristen Wiig is pretty enough as the somewhat underwritten love interest, while Adam Scott is deliciously evil as an insensitive boss.)  The integration of (now-defunct) Life Magazine is felt more deeply as thematic assistance than product placement (although if you want product placement, eHarmony, Papa John’s and Cinnabon are there to make you happy.)  Much of the plotting seems arbitrary, with at least two palpable moments where narrative tension evaporates at the moment it should become more urgent.  There may be an unresolvable tension at work here, between the wild fantasies and the desire to deliver a grounded and meaningful life lesson.  Even when it strives to embrace a more colorful, grander life, the film seems happy in its mild-mannered ways.  In the end, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty settles for being a good film rather than the great one that it wanted to be.

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