Daydream Nation

Ben Stiller turns a classic short story into a glorified commercial, albeit a visually stunning one

Given how prone its namesake is to zoning out, perhaps it's not surprising that Ben Stiller's adaptation of James Thurber's beloved short story never manages to really connect. Then again, maybe this is just the price you pay when you try to force-feed viewers whimsy and rely on your soundtrack to do all of your heavy emotional lifting. (Why bother crafting scenes capable of inspiring elation courtesy of skillful writing when you can simply crank Arcade Fire's "Wake Up"?)

Granted, before it can begin its upward trajectory, the film must first familiarize us with the lonely existence of Walter Mitty (Stiller). In his compact, unadorned apartment, he diligently balances a checkbook before working up the nerve to message his coworker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) via eHarmony (the opening salvo in what will soon become an all-out barrage of product placement). That these efforts meet with an error message is hardly surprising. Walter just wasn't made for these times.

Arriving at the offices of Life where he toils in "negative asset management," Walter discovers that the venerable publication has been bought out and condemned to the most undignified of fates: going web-only. Adam Scott plays Ted, the delighted bearer of this bad news, having seemingly secured the role on the merits of his equally obnoxious turn in Step Brothers. Regrettably, he's given meager material to work with here, resulting in a character who's more bore than boor.

To this point, Walter has made a regular habit of breaking from reality in order to indulge in frenetically staged, CGI-heavy daydreams in which he rescues Cheryl's dog from a burning building or duels Ted in the streets. In turn, these flights of fancy have largely failed to impress, sapping the narrative of momentum while suggesting that the outwardly buttoned-down protagonist's supposedly rich inner world is little more than a sizzle reel of garish, noisy deleted scenes from summer blockbusters.

Tired of being emasculated by Ted and eager to impress Cheryl, Walter impulsively boards a flight to Greenland in hopes of tracking down acclaimed photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), who's believed to be in possession of the missing negative for Life's final cover. Could it be that hunting for the photo that's purportedly "the quintessence of life" means an epiphany is only a montage away? Is there any chance that self-actualization will take the form of something other than a middle-aged man's power fantasies? Unfortunately, the answer to the latter query becomes apparent as we witness the ridiculous sight of Walter fleeing an erupting volcano by speeding away on a skateboard.

"It's like Indiana Jones became the lead singer of The Strokes," Walter's eHarmony tech support rep-turned-long distance sidekick (Patton Oswalt) marvels. The declaration is cringe-inducing not so much for its datedness, but more because it seems to reveal a remarkable neediness on the part of Mitty's director-star that can only be sated by overt affirmations of his virility and hipness.

"Beautiful things don't ask for attention," O'Connell counsels Walter when their paths eventually cross. Likewise, films that clearly pride themselves on imparting universal truths shouldn't feel this self-serving. Nor should any film that wants to be taken seriously indulge in the sort of product placement that would leave 30 Rock's Jack Donaghy giddy and sees Papa John's not only serve as a (remarkably unfunny) running joke but also the root of great personal pain and lasting regret for Walter.

Alas, with its insipid adages, extreme wish-fulfillment and soundtrack, Walter Mitty frequently leaves you with the uncomfortable feeling that you're being lectured to by a glorified cola commercial. ♦

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