Movie News & Reviews

‘Secret Life of Walter Mitty’: Fantasy with a heart | 3½ stars

Cynics need not bother with “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” a whimsical throwback to Capra-esque Everyman tales of the 1940s.

The PG rating provides the first clue that director/star Ben Stiller won’t be embarking on a bawdy “Tropic Thunder”-style satire. This comedy adventure is earnest and moving and it provides much better family fare than dragging the kids to another “Night at the Museum” sequel.

Stiller plays the title character, a docile office drone who breaks up the monotony of his day by concocting heroic daydreams. Toiling in one of the least glamorous jobs in the Life magazine newsroom, Walter oversees processing and storing negatives at the photo-driven publication.

But that’s not the only negative in his life. The magazine is transitioning to digital, which means his job is being eliminated. That makes it even tougher for him to maybe, perhaps, one of these days get around to asking out co-worker Cheryl (a wonderfully down-to-earth Kristen Wiig). At least he can imagine dashing into a burning building to rescue her three-legged dog.

His one connection to tangible adventure is as the company’s go-between with its golden-boy photojournalist, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). The photographer mailed Walter his latest shoot from an undisclosed exotic location. Trouble is, the negative that Sean proudly tagged as the final cover shot appears to be missing.

Now Walter must finally take a stand. He uses cryptic clues captured on the same film roll to hunt the off-the-grid Sean in pursuit of this crucial, elusive image.

Stiller deftly handles these globe-hopping action scenes. While CGI trickery characterizes the earlier portions of his fantasies (which includes a superhero fight scene where he surfs on chunks of pavement), the later ones come courtesy of old-fashioned production values and slick cinematography. Footage shot in Iceland of an erupting volcano indulges in the sheer majesty of the locale.

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” doesn’t share a lot in common with the 1947 Danny Kaye comedy, which was based on a 1939 short story by James Thurber. The screenplay by Steve Conrad (“The Pursuit of Happyness”) introduces a rather dated springboard — Life actually axed its print edition 13 years ago — yet makes it feel contemporary. The film starts with a quietly hilarious scene of Walter attempting to fill out an eHarmony profile as a means to “send a wink” to Cheryl.

Much praise has been rightly given to Scarlett Johansson for the voice work she contributed to “Her,” about a lonely man falling in love with his computer operating system (it opens in Kansas City next month). Patton Oswalt deserves similar praise for creating a substantial character that is primarily heard as a disembodied voice over the phone. He plays Todd, the eHarmony tech support guy who continually calls Walter during his trek, functioning almost as a “geek chorus.”

The chummy Todd admonishes him at the outset, “Don’t skip stuff,” as Walter crafts an initially blank profile. That’s really the message of this optimistic movie. It provides a simple (maybe simplistic) wake-up call for those dreamers too apprehensive, too comfy, too set in their ways. Walter didn’t start out so passive. But harsh reality knocked the rebel out of him early on. That’s why it’s even more satisfying witnessing his transformation into a take-charge man.

“Mitty” gets a bit broad at times. A few of the exploits (shark attack!) strain credibility. And not all of the characters ring true.

Adam Scott (TV’s “Parks and Recreation”) plays the leader of the corporate team imported to oversee the Life downsizing. Sporting a fiendish beard more suited for a 19th century hypnotist, his character is too obnoxiously condescending to be believable.

His only purpose in the movie is to publicly make fun of Walter at every occasion.

Walter Mitty wouldn’t need to fantasize about winning a lucrative lawsuit against this jerk.

Rated PG for some crude comments, language and action violence.