Ben’s Walter works in the lower photographic departments of Life magazine in New York. His everyday life is so dull that he often daydreams or ‘vagues out’, and we see many of his early heroic fantasies in wryly amusing detail.
This longtime-coming effort from producer/director/star Ben Stiller hasn’t got much to do with the 1947 film of the same name toplining Danny Kaye (which itself wasn’t at all like James Thurber’s original short story from 1939), and instead of offering a comedic tale of the power of dreams, tries for something deeper and more yearning. Ben’s Walter works in the lower photographic departments of Life magazine in New York. His everyday life is so dull that he often daydreams or ‘vagues out’, and we see many of his early heroic fantasies in wryly amusing detail. When the mag prepares for its final ever issue before everything goes online, meek Walter falls for sweet colleague Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), makes a powerful enemy in a dickhead downsizer (Adam Scott) and misplaces an old-fashioned slide intended for the front cover sent by legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) and all of these factors combine to force Walter to take a chance and jet off to Greenland, Iceland and beyond to track Sean down. While this should theoretically become goofier (and maybe grosser) with each plot twist, Stiller’s pic proves unusually thoughtful and even melancholic at times, with Walter supplied a whole sad backstory about why he gave up his dreams (of travelling the world and having fabulous adventures) which he didn’t really need, as we know all too well why he squashed them in favour of a boring job: fate and the wicked world got in his way. With the star actually in exotic spots (rather than superimposed in via CGI, or with Alaska ﬁlling in for Iceland), nice use of music (with David Bowie’s Space Oddity used as a song about courage and daring rather than one about drugs and death), appealing playing (even Shirley MacLaine underacts as Walter’s Mom) and Stiller himself using his curious charisma to winning effect, this is surprisingly nowhere near the Hollywood nightmare you might be thinking (or fearing). Rated PG. Opens December 26