Ben Stiller is a gifted director who has performed a full-on 180-degree turn from snarky fare like "Tropic Thunder" to tackle this new adaptation of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," James Thurber's famed 1939 short story that inspired a well-liked 1947 movie starring Danny Kaye.

It's a sincere effort about a forty-something dreamer played by Stiller whose days vacillate between a humdrum job in the photo department of Life magazine (weirdly resurrected for this present-day set flick) and a series of elaborate fantasies that find him rescuing animals from burning buildings, transforming into a rugged mountain explorer and more.

The thematic structure is strong; Stiller and screenwriter Steve Conrad evoke the yearning for change and excitement in a life that seems deeply unsatisfying to the man living it. We're all cursed with the feeling that the important, interesting stuff is happening somewhere outside our purview. To be human is to be envious, in one form or another, after all.

The movie is just so antiseptic, filled with silver-toned images that are self-consciously beautiful to the point of distraction. It's so over-processed that it doesn't feel real. The compositions are perfectly shaped and geometric, the camera movements fluid, the imagery geared toward evoking a maximum sense of awe. Stiller relies so heavily on wide shots framing Mitty against, say, a pristine snow-covered mountain or amid the rush of waves in a stormy sea that the movie comes to resemble a series of pretty pictures rather than a journey into the character's head.

This is complicated material in that it requires the externalization of a deeply internal sense of dissatisfaction. As an actor and a director, Stiller can't quite pull it off. His performance is too self-consciously mopey, without the deep feeling that someone like Jim Carrey might have brought to the part. And when the movie becomes a literal, globe-trotting adventure, sending Mitty everywhere from Scandinavia to Afghanistan, the story's universality is lost. It's a travelogue that's a long way removed from Thurber's "undefeated, inscrutable" hero.


Directed by Ben Stiller

Starring Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott

Rated PG

Opens Dec. 25