Mid-life crisis has never looked so good

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty ★★★ (Directed by Ben Stiller)

Kitschy vision is charming for tale of a sad-sack with a mind for fantasy who’s still waiting to come to life.

Starring: Ben Stiller, Sean Penn and Kristen Wiig.

Written by Steve Conrad (based on the short story by James Thurber)

Adventure, comedy, drama and fantasy. 1hr 54mins. PG for mild violence, coarse language and sexual references.

Here in the West we have a fascination with the idea of travelling to find ourselves.

Living at the furthest corner of the globe, Kiwis, have ‘‘backpack fever’’ burning in them hotter than almost any other nation on earth.

So, it’s always charming to us when a film captures the profoundly transformative nature of travel.

It’s the joy of being out of your element, but finding kindred spirits in exotic jungles, or boiling deserts, or the great skyscraper canyons of legendary cities.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty tries to capture that unique joy of travel with a quirky, off beat vision, to tell a tale of life triumphant.

It’s not entirely successful, but the attempt is undeniably enjoyable.

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a ‘‘little grey paper square’’ of man – as one of his quirky travel companions will tell him – who has never been anywhere or done anything.

Afflicted with a hardcore case of daydreaming, he ‘‘zones out’’ into farfetched power fantasies where he’s everything the real Mitty is not – witty, brave, exotic and man enough to actually talk to the object of his affection, his workmate Cheryl (Kristen Wiig).

Getting lost this world of heroism and action makes him the butt of jokes at his workplace – the legendary magazine Life – which is on the verge of being shut down and digitised.

When the final front page image, taken by a real adventurer and hero, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), goes missing, Mitty must decide if he’s going to retreat into his fantasy world forever, or take a chance on life.

Borrowing heavily from the Wes Andersen play book with kitschy, centred shots and a rainbow bright palette, Ben Stiller’s fifth film as director is a modern fable.

Rebooting James Thurber’s classic short story about an mundane man whose boring day is punctuated by imaginary greatness, Stiller leaves almost all of the book’s actual mundanity behind.

Eventual acts of daring are indistinguishable from flights of fancy in this version. In fact, Mitty’s secret life is less secret and more a sequence of stunning dares; the pathos of a sad-sack with a mind of gold is replaced by a midlife-crisis/coming-of-age hybrid that will appeal to any rut-stuck Gen-Xer.

The film is indescribably lovely to look at though.

Each new location is more charming and inviting than the last, each new experience more daring and enticing than anything Mitty, or I, could dream up.

Who knew Greenland was so cute, or escaping an erupting volcano so invigorating?

It’s hard not to feel inspired when Mitty finally girds up his loins and straps on a back pack, but there’s something ridiculously glib about it too.

Flights to Afghanistan don’t come cheap – or at all, these days – but in Stiller’s fantasy of self discovery there is no bank balance too small nor stretch of Earth too great for the intrepid human spirit.

And when Mitty finally finds his way to the roof of the world to meet his guru on the mountain top (shaggy, world worn Penn is perfect in this role) it’s less triumphant than it could be.

Hammering home the film’s a trite “be in the moment” message, it all feels a little too heavy handed to be really moving.

Even so, there’s something sweetly charming about distances Mitty travels – the volcanoes he rides and wilds seas he tames – to bring himself back to life and Stiller does justice to the journey, at least.


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