Critics' Pick

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (PG)

Action/Adventure 125 December 25, 2013
By Amy Nicholson
Like the '90s, Ben Stiller loves sarcasm -- he even cast himself as the most handsome man in the world -- but his films are sincere within their worlds: Derek Zoolander really is a gorgeous model, and Tropic Thunder's Kirk Lazarus is invested in his blackface. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty drops all the irony. The story of a shy magazine employee with a magnificent imagination, it's an uplifting, big-hearted crowd-pleaser. Which, in today’s Hollywood, where every superhero has a standing Thursday appointment with a therapist, makes it defiantly uncool. The disaffectedness Stiller popularized in Reality Bites is biting him in the ass. As in the original James Thurber short story, Mitty dreams he's leading a more exciting life -- a Hollywood fantasy. Here, he imagines larger-than-life heroes and toughs in the visual language of film: The leaves swirl, the music quickens, and his eyes burn. Eventually Mitty sets out on a real adventure to track down a wild-man photographer (Sean Penn). The film thrills at this quest; the National Geographic-quality vistas are almost distractingly beautiful, the indie ballads one synthesizer chord short of emotional overkill. Yet Stiller balances his big ambitions with small, grounded truths -- after visiting a volcano, Mitty goes to a Papa John's and balances his checkbook. Globe-trotting ain't cheap. Like Mitty, Stiller dreams big. The problem is that audiences have trouble dividing Stiller the actor -- the paycheck-cashing doofus of Night at the Museum -- from Stiller the director, whose last film scored Robert Downey Jr. an Oscar nomination (for a summer comedy!). He's both famous and forgotten, the best comedy director of his generation hiding in plain sight.
Ben Stiller Kristen Wiig, Ben Stiller, Sean Penn, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Josh Charles, Shirley MacLaine, Patton Oswalt, Terence Bernie Hines, Adrian Martinez Steve Conrad 20th Century Fox

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