If, while watching "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," you start wondering why Ben Stiller is acting strange, the answer comes during the closing credits: "Directed by Ben Stiller."
There is something within people that tempts us to film ourselves in moments of wistful contemplation. I say "people" and not just "filmmakers" because I suspect that if you gave most people a camera and a budget, they would do the same. We spend much of our lives inside our own heads. Why shouldn't we grasp the chance to show just how beautiful and sensitive we truly are?
Alas, the harsh answer to that question is that nobody wants to see it. Or rather that no one wants to see that as the main course, as a movie's reason for being. In the case of Stiller, it's one thing to direct oneself in a comedy, such as "Zoolander" and "Tropic Thunder," but drama is difficult, because instead of being the butt of the joke, you're the locus of sensitivity and meaning. It only compounds the difficulty when you're playing someone who is meek, fearful and lost in a dream.
"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is based on the much-loved 1939 short story by James Thurber, about a mild, nondescript fellow who keeps lapsing into grandiose fantasies.
In Steve Conrad's screenplay, the setting is updated to modern-day New York, where Walter (Stiller) works at Life magazine, curating the negatives, while pining for one of his co-workers, played by Kristen Wiig. She is so nice in the film that she actually seems to develop an attraction for Walter, even though he all but contracts narcolepsy in her presence - and that's only when he's not stammering and looking at her with hangdog, helpless longing. What a catch.
As if Stiller weren't taking on enough in directing himself, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" has a tricky screenplay. It has little narrative interest and requires that the director latch onto a very specific airy tone of whimsy, lest the whole souffle collapse. It's just a wisp of a story: A negative has gone missing, and so Walter travels the earth in search of the photographer who took it.
The locations are in themselves worthy. If you've ever flown to England and wondered about Iceland and Greenland as you passed by, here's your chance to find out what they're doing down there.
Sean Penn plays the photographer, and his one scene is the best in the movie.
Stiller is in love with the lines of Penn's face, as well he should be. But Stiller never quite finds the right zone between reality and fantasy so as to make sense of the action. For example, Walter throws away a wallet for no reason. Later he finds out there was something important in the wallet, but he doesn't make a phone call that might retrieve it. Later, he comes into possession of the precious negative, but he never looks at it, etc.
In a dreamy construct, such behavior could have its own logic, but not in what is essentially a straight drama (with some laughs thrown in). In a straight setup, the characters just seem like they're getting pushed around and shoehorned to fit into some preconceived ending. Because they are.
Rated: PG. 114 minutes.
(Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle's movie critic. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @MickLaSalle)