The spaced-out hero of Ben Stiller's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" has a workplace nickname: Major Tom. You know, the astronaut in David Bowie's "Space Oddity" who disconnects from Ground Control and drifts into infinity. Walter Mitty, a chronic daydreamer, tends to do that, too.
The moniker fits a little too well. In this scattered, distracted update of the 1939 James Thurber story, and of the 1947 film starring Danny Kaye, Stiller directs himself as Mitty, a depressed Gen-Xer who frequently retreats into "Thor"-style action-fantasies. In reality, he's a photo handler at Life magazine, which is being shuttered by cold-blooded consultant Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott). The picture destined for Life's final cover has disappeared, and Mitty must find it, even if that means a globe-hopping search for the famous photographer who took it, Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn).
Perhaps you're thinking: "Huh?" If so, that's because this "Mitty," written by Steven Conrad, tries to jam together Thurber's tragicomic portrait and Kaye's whimsical comedy (which Thurber loathed), while concocting yet a third version that aims to resonate with modern viewers. The movie gives Mitty a punk-rock past, but this detail doesn't jibe with a character who works at an Eisenhower-era glossy. It seems clear that Mitty has been bland his entire life: No matter what's happening around him, he barely changes his expression.
That gets tiresome, since Mitty is essentially the movie's only character. Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), Mitty's workplace crush, is an afterthought; Shirley MacLaine barely registers as his mother, Edna; and Penn, as the deeply world-weary O'Connell, seems unaware that he's in a comedy. Stiller may not be fully aware, either. He has directed some sharp comedies ("Zoolander," "Tropic Thunder"), but here he goes for a slick, commercial style indistinguishable from any number of middlebrow, Hollywood heart-tuggers.
In its confusion, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" grabs at straws. In a crucial scene, Cheryl encourages Mitty by telling him that Major Tom is really a figure of courage -- a perversely upbeat reading of Bowie's druggy, tragic ballad. But Mitty, never one to face reality, believes her.
PLOT A habitual daydreamer finds himself forced to dive headfirst into adventure.
RATING PG (mild language)
CAST Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn
BOTTOM LINE Director-star Stiller plays Mitty as a zoned-out sad sack surrounded by whimsy. The result is a confused dramedy that isn't funny or compelling enough to make us care.