We would expect a reasonable amount of candy-ass self-congratulation in Ben Stiller's 74-years-late adaptation of James Thurber's short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. And Stiller does flatter himself by portraying mousy daydreamer Walter, keeper of the "negative assets" photo morgue at Life magazine, as a nice guy who only needs the right circumstances to prove to his special someone (Kristen Wiig's Cheryl, a fellow Life staffer) that he's a real hero underneath.
But there are times in which it's better to throw away our critical suspicions and just let Stiller's (and adapting screenwriter Steve Conrad's) everyman fantasy wash over us like an Icelandic calving glacier. That's why this movie is opening Christmas Day. Poor Walter and Cheryl are the type of people who keep their heads down and labor to put out a product — in this case, an outdated, photo-dominated print publication — while their new corporate masters are preparing to take the magazine online and lay off hundreds. If Stiller can squeeze a smile out of that situation, he's a magician. He does, and therefore he is.
The Iceland scenery is spectacular, whether it's standing in for Greenland or Afghanistan or just being itself. Both Stiller and Wiig look right for their parts as gentle souls in the 21st century clutches of corporate predator Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott with beard). And while we're on the subject, bearded (and drunken) helicopter pilot Ólafur Darri Ólafsson is the funniest character in the movie. However, Sean Penn as the movie's MacGuffin, a globe-trotting photographer, is fairly gratuitous. Life mag itself has been officially defunct since 2007, so that part of the movie's mechanism is absolutely true. There is no Life left for Walter, but he'll skate by all right.
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