About halfway through The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the latest film adaptation of James Thurber's short story of the same name, I was reminded of the 2011 box-office bomb Cowboys & Aliens. Both films show tremendous promise in parts, only to be hamstrung by the very gimmick it saddles itself with.
Ben Stiller stars as the title character, a quiet man living a quiet life but desperate to break out of his shell. He's the longtime manager of Life magazine's photo library, but his constant daydreaming draws the ire of a bullying exec (Park & Rec's Adam Scott, sporting the fakest beard in the history of film). These dreams, many featuring his crush, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), are the only moments of Walter's life where he feels truly alive.
One day, his bosses announce that layoffs are imminent at the magazine; coincidentally, Walter ends up having to travel in search of a superstar photographer (Sean Penn). This trip will include a near-death experience in Greenland, a volcanic eruption in Iceland and a trek through the Himalayas.
The acting here is top-notch. Stiller, for the first time in recent memory, doesn't fall back on his usual tics and delivers one of the finest performances of his career. Patton Oswalt appears in a crowd-pleasing turn as an eHarmony operator who attempts to fill out Walter's online profile throughout the film, while Penn nearly steals the movie as the flamboyant photographer.
Stiller, in his return to directing, attempts to deliver a very adult film, but it's hobbled by all the imaginary derring-do: Beautiful shots of everyday life give way to overblown, distracting CGI that only slows the momentum. Stiller's time spent on the set of The Royal Tenenbaums served him well, as Wes Anderson's visual style influences every scene here.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Masters of the universe."