Movie Review: ‘Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ quirky and fun

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a big-budget adventure with the feel of an offbeat indie.

Director and star Ben Stiller doesn’t quite weld these contrasting tones seamlessly; but it’s a thoroughly satisfying piece of holiday entertainment, alternately silly, heartfelt, exciting and thoughtful.

This is the second film version of James Thurber’s 1939 story about a henpecked husband who relieves a dull shopping trip by daydreaming himself into various heroic guises (naval captain, master surgeon, bomber pilot).

Neither the 1947 Danny Kaye film nor this handsome new mounting could mine two hours from Thurber’s little sketch; both wind up throwing the titular milquetoast into the kind of over-the-top caper that is, in Thurber, merely the stuff of fantasy.

In other words, fans of the original story should try to forget it for this film. The other problem is that once Mitty undertakes his real-life adventure – he’s a bookish Time-Life worker who sets out on a far-flung quest for an important photo – we spend a fair amount of time wondering whether this is just another of his dreams.

But those are quibbles in a film that keeps surprising us with catchy music, lovely photography, luscious locales and oddball characters.

Chief among these is the unforgettable Olafur Darri Olafsson as a drunken helicopter pilot. His uproarious sequence in a Greenland saloon includes the lamest karaoke ever filmed, massive boot-shaped beer glasses and Kristen Wiig on a strolling acoustic-guitar version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (that ought to give some idea of this film’s often quirky approach).

Equally delightful is Patton Oswalt in the brief role of an eHarmony consultant; in addition to Wiig as Walter’s love interest, “Mitty” also stars Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott and Sean Penn.

And it looks fantastic. Filmed in British Columbia, Manhattan, Ontario and Iceland, it features stunning mountain landscapes and knock-out composition of the sort one scarcely expects in a comedy about an underdog everyman who slowly develops fortitude and determination.

(You know you’ve got genuine location shooting when the credits include a “medic on the glacier” and a production assistant named Sigurjonsdottir.)

Stiller is marvelous; in early scenes he somehow makes this unassuming nebbish likable enough to grab our sympathy and interest; later, as Mitty learns to take risks and stand up for himself, Stiller suddenly turns him into tousled, handsome, world-weary globetrotter who wouldn’t seem out of place next to Tom Selleck or Harrison Ford.

I have no idea how he accomplished this transformation; but it’s emblematic of a film that manages a little bit of everything: action, family drama, scenery, humor, surprise, self-discovery, romance, lovable eccentricity and lots of cool music.

This mix doesn’t always work, but the attempt alone is enough to make “Mitty” one of the year’s most appealing and unusual mainstream features.

3 stars out of 4

Rated PG for some crude comments, language and action violence.