After the disappointment of Will Ferrell's Anchorman 2 last week, another funnyman who shot to superstardom during the 2000s returns with a big-budget holiday comedy. And while Ben Stiller's take on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty isn't as toe-curlingly terrible as Ferrell's film, it's a less than hilarious vanity project.
Loosely based on the 1939 short story by James Thurber, Stiller's first directorial effort since 2008's Tropic Thunder differs greatly from both it and the 1947 movie version starring Danny Kaye.
What was once a small, charming tale is now an overlong, overblown, CGI-addled 'message' picture.
In fact, pretty much the only thing it shares with the past incarnations is the title.
Anyway, in this nominal remake, Stiller's titular nebbish is a 'negative assets' manager for Life magazine, meaning he deals with photographic negatives in a dingy basement office.
When we first meet him, he's perched in his clinically neat apartment, struggling to summon the courage to press 'send' on an online 'wink' to a female colleague. It's a promising opening, and as in the original story, Mitty's fantasies soon start coming to life.
So, within the first 20 minutes, he's fighting his obnoxious boss on the streets of New York City, in a special effects-heavy sequence that wouldn't be out of place in a Marvel superhero blockbuster, and wooing Kristen Wiig's aforementioned co-worker, Cheryl, in the guise of a gruff polar explorer (below). If you've seen the trailer, you've seen most of this stuff, and after half an hour, Stiller bores of the 'daydreaming' conceit and decides to disregard it.
Subsequently, Mitty partakes in adventures for real, travelling around the world on a quest for a lost negative taken by legendary photojournalist Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), which is wanted by the slimy corporation executives taking over production for the final edition of Life.
No explanation is given for how the character goes from being a meek sap to the kind of man who can leap into a helicopter as it's taking off, jump into shark-infested waters or climb mountains. It's as if screenwriter Steve Conrad – who penned the similarly treacly misfires The Weather Man and The Pursuit of Happyness – is more interested in massaging Stiller's ego by concocting a traditional zero-to-hero yarn.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is also one of the least appealingly cast movies in years. Adam Scott's horrid, bearded bad guy is so unpleasant to watch, he actively undermines proceedings, while Shirley MacLaine, as Mitty's mother, is given next to nothing to do. The sole shining light is Penn, who is captivating as the enigmatic O'Connell. There's a marvellous scene atop a mountain, in which the rugged snapper gazes at a snow leopard through a telescope, dispensing worldly philosophies to an awestruck Mitty. It's inspiring stuff, yet inadvertently highlights how deadening the rest of the film around it is.
On the positive side, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty certainly looks amazing, boasting some genuinely breathtaking scenery. It's refreshing to see Greenland, Iceland and Afghanistan represented on screen in something other than a nature documentary or the news.
You imagine the location shoots made The Secret Life of Walter Mitty a lot of fun to make. Sadly, it's just not that much fun to watch.