Though countless films over the past seven decades have tried, none have emerged as a spiritual successor to “It’s a Wonderful Life” quite like “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”
While Walter (Ben Stiller) – who escapes reality through a series of elaborate and heroic daydreams – is not feeling the depths of despair in quite the same way as George Bailey, things in his life have admittedly become a little desperate.
He’s fawning after a co-worker (Kristen Wiig) with whom he’s never spoken, and a new buyout means his job at “Life” magazine is on the line after more than a decade as a “negative assets manager.”
The film opens as Walter attempts to connect with her through online dating because he can’t quite get up the nerve to stop her in the hall and ask her to dinner.
In a brief but memorable role, Patton Oswalt steals the show as Walter’s eHarmony contact, who in a strange way serves as his biggest cheerleader.
Despite never haven met in person, Walter has also built a friendship with an adventurous photographer (Sean Penn) whose life is in many ways the polar opposite of his own.
When a photo negative meant to be used in the magazine’s final print issue disappears, he takes it upon himself to track down his pen pal, save his job and maybe even get the girl.
What follows is a wild journey through rough waters, active volcanoes and high altitudes, as Walter becomes the person he believes he was always meant to be.
Stiller makes a fine if not sensational dramatic lead in the project, bringing enough humor to keep the more emotional moments from dipping into melancholy.
Yet as a director, he makes quite the impression, as the film bursts with color and features one gorgeous close-up after another.
Stiller’s use of graphic text is something to behold, as journal entries are etched into snowy mountaintops and airport signage spells out the inspiring “Life” magazine motto.
True, the film never quite plumbs the emotional depths it initially hopes to, as with Adam Scott’s cardboard-cutout corporate jerk and in particular with Walter’s rather pat backstory for how his life ended up this way.
In fact, the movie is a lot like Walter’s daydreams, extravagant and beautiful to witness, but also fleeting (aside from a particularly cackle-inducing scene inspired by “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”).
Yet it’s also a heartfelt and beautifully-shot film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and that’s not a bad place to be.
"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is in theaters December 25. Rated PG.