Ben Stiller’s triumphant Secret

Have you ever wondered what Ben Stiller dreams about? The actor-director is known for push-the-boundaries comedies like 2001's "Zoolander" but Stiller has shown that he has a zeitgeist-aware dramatic side with 1994's "Reality Bites." Put those together, and one can imagine that his fantasy is to make a drama with comedic elements.

It has become a reality in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," Stiller's fifth feature film as a director.

No easy project

This is no easy project. A staple of American classrooms, "Mitty" is based on a classic 1939 short story by James Thurber that has previously been adapted into a 1947 motion picture featuring Danny Kaye. The story-which centers on a daydreaming everyman who loses himself in reverie instead of doing anything-has given birth to the American expression "Mittyesque."

Interestingly enough, this runs counter to what Stiller is trying to do with the movie. Instead of adapting the story, "Mitty" screenwriter Steve Conrad takes out one element and expands on it with a completely new adventure. Stiller buys into it all the way, and the result is breathtakingly different from anything Stiller has done in the past.

Mitty (Stiller) works at Life magazine in New York as the photography section's negative assets manager. He often finds himself zoning out into outlandish daydreams as he pines after winsome coworker Cheryl Melhoff ("Bridesmaids" star Kristen Wiig).

But when Life prepares for its final print issue prior to going online, Mitty and company find out their jobs are in danger. In an attempt to save his job, Mitty must travel to faraway locales in hopes of finding a missing negative from the famous, eccentric, reclusive photojournalist Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn). In the process, Mitty's life is changed forever. "Beautiful things don't ask for attention," O'Connell reminds Mitty.

Stunning visuals

Most noticeable is the film's stunning visuals. Shot in the United States (Los Angeles, New York) and Iceland, "Mitty" is gorgeous, as Stiller and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh turn its isolated sequences into the longest National Geographic or Discovery Channel commercial ever made. It gives "Mitty" a hyper-dreamlike quality that contrasts with the urban landscape of the city scenes.

Also noteworthy is the film's haunting soundtrack, orchestrated by composer Theodore Shapiro and including tracks from Swedish singer-songwriter Jose Gonzalez and Icelandic band Of Monsters and Men. This gives "Mitty" an achingly romantic tone.

Stiller portrays Mitty as a noble, lovable schlub, seemingly ordinary but capable of great things. It isn't so much that Mitty transforms from nobody to somebody; rather, he finds out he was that all along, with a restrained, invested performance by Stiller.

Wiig as Melhoff is strikingly bright as the unconventional female romantic lead.

"Mitty" is bolstered by a sterling supporting cast including Penn, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott and Patton Oswalt.

Unpredictable

Stiller and Conrad have loaded "Mitty" with many sub-plots, including making a statement about the lost charms of print and photography, and emphasizing the value of family. A virtual onscreen self-help book, "Mitty" is Stiller's depiction the working man's triumph in an age of ever-shifting expectations.

With its unusual rhythm, unpredictable turns and divergence from its original source material, "Mitty" is not for those seeking easy entertainment. It is not like 2008's "Tropic Thunder." It really isn't anything that those who have followed Stiller's movies have seen before.

It's Stiller's most personal, ambitious film-and thus his best. What he has set out here is to inspire, and that's exactly what the earnest, unabashedly feel-good "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" does, making it the stuff Ben Stiller's dreams are made of.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is showing in cinemas now.

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