Ben Stiller-Sean Penn-680
Photo Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

First, the good news: this isn’t a stupid comedy. In fact, it’s barely a comedy at all. That’s the bad news. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty doesn’t seem to know what it is. Although it takes place in the present day, it centers around a nerdy worker-bee in the photo morgue at Life magazine, which in real life went out of business years ago. The major plot point of a famous, photo-centric publication transitioning to an online business seems oddly anachronistic, if not downright irrelevant.

As for the influence of James Thurber, whose 1939 short story put “Walter Mitty” into the vernacular, the device of an ordinary fellow having heroic daydreams is employed at the beginning of the movie and then discarded, as this Mitty embarks on an ambitious real-life adventure. So much for Thurber.

Seeds are planted throughout the film that don’t bear fruit—or have a chance to ripen. Yet the movie is never dull. Screenwriter Steven Conrad and director/star Ben Stiller take us on an eye-opening journey, as Walter Mitty sets off in search of an elusive, globe-trotting photographer (Sean Penn). He travels to Greenland, then Iceland, and engages in a series of escapades that reveal his perseverance, bravery, and athleticism. Meanwhile, he stays in touch by cell phone with the girl of his dreams (coworker Kristen Wiig) back in New York and his contact at eHarmony (Patton Oswalt) in Los Angeles.

Where does all this lead? To a somewhat conventional happy ending. Have we gained something along the way? I don’t think so, unless you count the fact that knowing how to skateboard can come in handy at the most unexpected moments.

I’ve never been a great fan of the 1947 movie with Danny Kaye, so I can’t accuse Stiller of desecrating a classic. The trailer for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty distills its best moments and makes it look like a sensational movie, which it is not. It’s not bad, or unwatchable, but it’s not funny enough to be a good comedy, or fantastic enough to qualify as a fantasy. It’s an idea in limbo that’s never fully realized.