This has been such an exceptional year in movies that calling a movie “perfectly likable” or even “good” starts to sound like faint praise. Which means that “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Ben Stiller’s contemporary adaptation of the James Thurber story, may well get lost in the shuffle of its betters. But that shouldn’t detract from the strengths of a film that, while imperfect, has much to recommend it.
As the title character, Stiller brings his jut-jawed, laser-blue glare to a character who starts off as something of a passive cipher. As a longtime manager for “negative assets” at Life magazine, Walter processes the magazine’s photographers’ celluloid — in other words, he’s an obsolete guy working in an obsolete media platform within a soon-to-be all-digital art form. The film’s opening scene — wherein Walter hesitantly “winks” at a woman on an online dating forum — makes it clear: This is a man working at Life, rather than living it.
As a bland, ineffectual drone harboring fantasies of romance and adventure, Stiller’s Walter is without a doubt a direct descendent from Thurber’s 1939 creation. But, working with Steve Conrad’s screenplay, Stiller eventually takes enormous liberties with the story’s plot, which in his hands takes increasingly digressive and literal flights of fancy. Thurber purists will be appalled, but, as yet another tale of a man coping with the 21st-century onslaught of technology, downsizing and alienation, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” feels very much of its time, cinematically and otherwise.
Because the film is so rooted in present-day anxieties, the filmmakers don’t need to underline, italicize and repeat its message — crystallized in the oft-repeated Life motto, about seeing things “thousands of miles away,” “hidden behind walls” and “dangerous to come to.” The digressions that Stiller takes as a director don’t always bear fruit, and the movie — in which the main plot driver is Walter’s nascent love for a co-worker played by Kristen Wiig — ends with an odd whimper, especially considering the spectacular set pieces that have gone before.
But there are moments of real value in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Conrad sneaks in lots of clever puns on Life, both humorous and dark, and the movie benefits from a bright, attractive visual design that lingers as lovingly on its most colorful interludes as on the magazine’s most iconic black-and-white portraits. When a company arrives to oversee the end of the print edition (an effort headed by a tiresomely one-note jerk played by Adam Scott), scenes of the wall-size pictures being de-accessioned suggest an entire history and cultural patrimony being carelessly discarded.
And there are passages of astonishing beauty in the film, which not only stages impressively produced scenes of daredeviltry within Walter’s imagination, but also situates him against backdrops of magnificent natural scenery. One scene in particular — involving the David Bowie song “Space Oddity,” an errant helicopter and a mad dash for redemption — looks for all the world as if he’s flying directly into a Rockwell Kent painting. (The MacGuffin coincides with a charming cameo appearance from a flawlessly cast actor in top self-effacing form.)
The unevenness of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” and Stiller’s recessive characterization of the title character, keep it from being an all-out crowd-pleaser. As a similar exploration of being in the moment and staying there, Spike Jonze’s “Her,” also opening this week, is far more subtle and fully realized. Still, there’s a winsome, attaboy appeal to “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” that deserves to be honored. It’s a perfectly likable movie, and sometimes that’s good enough.
PG. At area theaters. Contains some crude comments, profanity and action violence.