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'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty': Perhaps Ben Stiller's best work yet

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Ben Stiller, Kristin Wiig, Sean Penn, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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Unless you’re nursing a serious Ebenezer Scrooge pre-visitation, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" presents your perfect holiday fare, bearing a genuine spirit of goodness and of the hope that reveals itself when one dares to believe. It’s a perfect option for those celebrating Christmas today, and for all in general it’s an endearing inspiration for ringing in the New Year and reaching for all that may await the brave.

Here we meet Walter Mitty of the classic James Thurber short story, now both portrayed and reimagined by director Ben Stiller with screen writer Steve Conrad ("The Pursuit of Happyness").

Walter is a good-natured if unremarkable man, devoted to his family (Shirley MacLaine and Kathryn Hahn) and finding himself reluctantly under the wing of a dogged eHarmony employee bent on helping him improve his lackluster profile.

Walter is also a dedicated and longtime employee of "Life" magazine, an unseen cog at home in the basement of its glamorous glass home, content to serve a necessary if under-appreciated function (as cogs often do). Content to support in spirit and fantasy, if not in action, its guiding motto: “To see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to, to draw closer, to see and be amazed.”

Until one day life, Life, changes (as life often does). And Walter’s daydreams of a more robust and intrepid life, which have thus far seemingly served him so well (well, well enough), are rendered insufficient. Life is about to require more of Mr. Walter Mitty.

"Life" magazine is undergoing a sea change (led by the insufferable Ted Hendricks, played to perfection by Adam Scott), and Walter finds himself at the center of a mystery. A mystery which, if not solved, will wreak grave disservice upon his beloved magazine and grievously disappoint the work of a particular dedicated photographer, as well as the photographer personally (Sean Penn in fine form as Jeff Spicoli all grown up).

Will Walter finally step up, and out? Is the encouragement and assistance of co-worker sweetheart Cheryl (well, sweetheart in his daydreams) enough to spur him on?

It is, and he does… and thus commences perhaps the sweetest, most intrepid, most beautifully realized personal adventure of the year.

"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" vibes on much the same wavelength as "Stranger Than Fiction"; though "Fiction" is pure fantasy and "Mitty" finds its fantasy inside Walter’s mind, they articulate the emergence of bravery and fortitude in very similar fashion. "Mitty" also echoes the winsome adventurousness of "The Big Year". Each deeply charming in its own way, together the three comprise a perfect trifecta.

"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" represents some of Ben Stiller’s best work yet. Here we see him in dramatic form a la "Permanent Midnight" sans the hole in the soul, leavened just a smidge by his non-descript Everyman of "Tower Heist". Others lead actors were under consideration over time, including Owen Wilson and Mike Myers, and I shudder to think how close we came to losing the film in its current form.

The sheer delight, however, comes from Stiller’s superb directorial eye. Supported by the exceptional cinematography of Stuart Dryburgh ("Lone Star", "The Piano"), "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" becomes colorful, crisp, and energetic, communicating perfectly Walter’s world from inside his own head to the slick environs of "Life" magazine to the chill snap of wild Icelandic air and sea.

Sporting a lovely score by regular Stiller collaborator Theodore Shapiro (who in fact scored "The Big Year"), it’s rounded out by the perfect application of soundtrack since "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World". The skateboard scene alone is worth three times the price of admission.

Approach "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" with a willing spirit, and you just might find yourself inspired to see what new heights you yourself might reach in a brave new year. Stiller has done exceptionally well for himself here, and this one deserves to be revisited in perpetuity, offering to the heart what "Tropic Thunder" offers the funny bone.

Noteworthy and mentionable indeed.

Story: A man living a predictable, orderly existence is content simply to daydream of a life less ordinary, until one day circumstance requires that he step up. And he does…

Genre: Action/Adventure, Comedy, Drama

Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristin Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Sean Penn, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Terence Bernie Hines, Patton Oswalt

Directed by: Ben Stiller

MPAA: PG

Running time: 114 minutes

Official site: http://www.waltermitty.com/

Houston release date: December 25, 2013

Tickets: Check Fandango, IMDb, or your local listings

Screened Dec 19th 2013 at the Edwards Grand Palace theater in Houston TX

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