‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’: Not dreamy enough

December 23, 2013

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Unless they find new ways to recycle their personae, comic actors would seem to have a limited shelf life.

It’s all about reinvention. Otherwise, you’re stuck doing the same dumb stuff over and over. (Exhibit A: Adam Sandler).

Still, I have to hand it to Ben Stiller. While his new film, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” only works for its first half, it shows his growth as a filmmaker, if not as a comic performer.

Stiller long ago established himself as the premier proponent of humiliation comedy. Even when he’s playing a jerk (as in “Dodgeball”), he finds ways to turn the sudden onset of embarrassment and shame into comic gold. Still, he’s been mining that vein for most of his career, from “There’s Something About Mary” to the “Focker” movies (speaking of the law of diminishing returns) and beyond.

Yet he’s also built a small body of work as a director which is limited but tasty. He hasn’t done anything as restrained or even as human as his first, “Reality Bites.” Nor has he played a character as seemingly normal or shtick-free since.

Based on a James Thurber short story, Stiller’s film is not as outsized or over the top as “Tropic Thunder.” Still, with its fantasy sequences, “Walter Mitty” frequently surprises, until, unfortunately, it loses that element.

Stiller plays the title role, a photo editor at Life magazine, which is about to go under. Indeed, there’s a new boss (the wonderfully snotty Adam Scott), brought in to oversee the downsizing. He immediately gets the mild-mannered Walter in his crosshairs.

Walter is not a punching bag; he’s just a milquetoast, a nice guy who, given the opportunity, would fade into the wallpaper rather than do anything to attract the spotlight. Which means he can never quite get the attention of the woman at work he’d like to ask out, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig).

With his job hanging in the balance, Walter hits a snag: A famous photographer has sent in what could be the cover photo for Life’s final issue – but Walter seems to have misplaced it. His search for it occupies all of his time and takes him farther and farther afield, in search of the photo and, eventually, the photographer himself.

Walter, however, is prone to flights of fantasy. While we all have those moments of hindsight – “That’s what I should have said/done” – Walter’s are larger than his life. He battles criminals, climbs impossible mountains, tosses off bon mots – all in his imagination. In real life, however, he seems to have drifted off into some reverie, making him appear inattentive and spacey, instead of merely imaginative.

Eventually – and this is the movie’s main problem – Walter is forced to take action in the real world. The twist is supposed to be that the mouse becomes a lion, risking his life and standing up for himself at the point when it is impossible for him to do anything else.

Those moments are not nearly as interesting – or, unfortunately, as illuminating – as the fantasies. Though Stiller finds unique ways to transition from the real world to Walter’s imagination, he can’t work similar magic when Walter learns to do things for himself.

As a result, the film runs out of steam in its second half. It keeps chugging along, but it mostly feels like Stiller and crew are going through the motions, rather than being carried by inspiration.

For its first hour, there’s something dreamy and inviting about “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Unfortunately, Stiller eventually has to wake up from that dream and the film suffers as a result.

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