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As a director and star trying to extend into new territory, Ben Stiller is his own best friend. With wild and crazy films like “Zoolander” and “Tropic Thunder” in his past, Stiller’s taken a different turn in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” but, fortunately for all concerned, the Old Ben has decided to come along for the ride.
As a result “Walter Mitty,” inspired by the brief 1939 James Thurber short story about a man who lapses into heroic daydreams at the slightest provocation, has a pleasant, curiously off-center quality that reflects the blending of these two sensibilities.
On the one hand, as written by Steven Conrad, “Secret Life” is animated by the traditional idea that, in Stiller’s own words, “we all have something inside us waiting to get out, and all it takes is the courage to stop dreaming and start living.”
But whenever things threaten to get too earnest (which they do), the director’s alter ego as one of the sharpest comedy minds in the business kicks in. Those instincts for the absurd bring on moments of amusing fantasy that hearken as far back as TV’s too smart for the room “The Ben Stiller Show” of the early 1990s.
Because that Thurber story is so slight, turning it into a feature leaves considerable latitude to create back story: Danny Kaye, for instance, was a proofreader with an overbearing mother in the 1947 version, and Stiller and company do their own inventing as well.
A clue to the playfulness to follow, as well as an indication of Stiller’s celebrated attention to detail, are found in the Kyle Cooper/Prologue Films opening credits, which artfully place bold-face names on the sides of buildings and other urban sites.
The city in question is New York, where Walter Mitty is introduced as an especially timid soul, hesitating about whether to send an eHarmony wink to his comely coworker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig.) Later, when Todd Maher (Patton Oswalt), his eHarmony consultant, asks why he’s left the “been there, done that” section of his questionnaire blank, Walter admits it’s because he hasn’t been anywhere or done anything.
Though Walter has confidence issues, “Secret Life” takes pains not to paint him as a complete wimp. For one thing, he has a healthy relationship with his mother (Shirley MacLaine), always a positive sign, and it’s revealed later that as a younger man Walter was quite the skateboarder.
That kind of physical exertion, however, seems well behind him in the job he’s held for 16 years, as the “negative assets manager” in the photo department of a fictionalized version of Life magazine. Few actors can manage looking as super-serious as Stiller, and his performance is complete down to the pens in his shirt pocket and the precise tie tack he wears.
Before Walter can even get to work, we see deft examples of the heroic daydreams/fantasies he is prone to, brief but funny situations where, or so his alter ego claims, he lives by the ABCs — “audacious, brave, creative.”
Once Walter arrives at the magazine’s office, events combine to change everything. First, he learns that Life has been sold to a dot.com entity and that the next issue will be its last in print. Staff will be cut and Ted Hendricks (a wacky Adam Scott), the zealous, obnoxious managing director of transition given to saying things like “I’ve got a magazine to execute,” considers Walter to be especially superfluous.
Also on this day of days, Walter gets a roll of film — yes, film — from old school Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), the last of Life’s great photographers. Walter has always looked after Sean’s negatives, so he’s especially disturbed to find that one shot on the roll, negative 25 to be precise, is missing in action.
Making matters worse, Ted hears about negative 25 and decides to make it Life’s final cover, sight unseen. Finding Sean and that missing frame becomes Walter’s top priority, and that quest has an unexpected benefit: It enables him to collaborate closely with girl of his dreams Cheryl.
Wiig, best known for her lengthy “Saturday Night Live” stint and her starring role in “Bridesmaids,” is quietly effective as the low-key Cheryl, who gradually warms to Walter and encourages him to throw caution to the wind and search the world for Sean O’Connell.
That extended expedition takes up the biggest chunk of “Secret Life” and features some fine comic moments, starting with Walter’s eccentric adventures in Iceland (Olafur Darri Olafsson is especially funny as an inebriated pilot) and moving on to even more extreme situations.
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With Walter’s real adventures paralleling his fantasies, opportunities for personal growth abound, and even though this inevitably leads to periodic marking of time, Stiller’s sensibility creates a movie that’s smarter than you think it will be. Kind of like Walter Mitty himself.
‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’
MPAA rating: PG, for some crude comments, language and action violence
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Playing: In general release