LOS ANGELES - Marketed as Ben Stiller's bend toward drama, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" finds the actor, who also directed the feature, seemingly exuding super-human strength while jumping between buildings and battling his nemesis as they surf asphalt.
The lampoon-like scenarios seem far too fanciful when attempting to take Stiller seriously. But these are just the narratives the title character weaves in his mind. In reality, Walter Mitty, played by a poised and sincere Stiller, is an insecure photo editor with an affinity for daydreaming.
Adapted from a short story of the same name, which was written by James Thurber and was published in 1939 in The New Yorker, the outlandish scenes in "Mitty" bring the most memorable element of the original tale - reality bending - to the forefront. Thurber's sarcastic narrative found Walter Mitty at odds with his bickering wife and escaping his humdrum life by daydreaming he was a war hero, surgeon and sharp shooter. The first rendering of "Mitty," which maintained Thurber's comedic tone, was realized on film in 1947. It starred Danny Kaye, who this time, battled with an overbearing mother.
Written by Steven Conrad, the contemporary rendition, in which Jim Carey was originally supposed to star, sees the real world altered with such wild inflection that it's hard to digest. Visual techniques like interspersing the text of the opening credits into Walter's surroundings, prove to be the most innovative and clever effect of the picture. Luckily, the CGI-marred moments flood only the first 30 minutes of the film, allowing for a loaded, inspiring experience familiar to other serious Conrad works like "The Pursuit of Happyness."
In the new "Mitty," Stiller's Walter works at Life magazine, which is transitioning from print to digital. A brilliantly vexing Adam Scott plays Ted Hendricks, the ringleader of a band of executives who've come to supervise the completion of the last issue and fire a large chunk of the magazine's staff.
In this take, the women aren't nags. Shirley MacLaine, who plays Stiller's mother, Edna, and Kathryn Hahn, who plays his sister, Odessa, are quite pleasant and supportive. It's Ted who acts as the villain. He takes to bullying Walter, who must pin down the negative image for the final issue's cover. Walter consistently spaces out, especially when he's fantasizing about his co-worker, Cheryl (played sweetly by Kristen Wiig).
Unable to locate the image, which was shot by a long-standing Life magazine photographer, Sean O'Connell (an explorer superbly pronounced by Sean Penn), Walter heads to Greenland where he hopes to find Sean and his coveted shot. Once there, Walter jumps out of a helicopter only to be nearly eaten by a shark when landing in the ocean. It's such a heart-pounding experience that even Walter wonders if what he just endured was real. But, alas, Walter's finally having actual adventures, as his capacity for taking risks increases.
In the midst of more action - Walter skateboards down a hill in Iceland and escapes an erupting volcano - he receives recurring calls from an eHarmony customer service rep (a facetious Patton Oswalt), who is determined to help Walter make his dull online dating profile more appealing.
As we watch Walter's world open up, we follow his journey across alluring locations like the Himalayas. When we finally meet Sean, who is perched on a mountain waiting for the perfect shot, he speaks to Walter's evolution as he tells him he sometimes prefers to savor his personal moments instead of being distracted by his camera.
"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," a Fox release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for "some crude comments, language and action violence." Running time: 114 minutes. Three stars out of four.