Stiller Deflates ‘Walter Mitty’; China Violence: Movies

Who would have predicted that the rich fantasy world of James Thurber’s day-dreaming Walter Mitty looks a lot like a second-rate Wes Anderson movie?

Director and star Ben Stiller, nodding to Anderson’s whimsical indie moods, turns “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” into an earthbound reverie, mixing recessionary gloom with unconvincing Hollywood uplift.

A Depression-era character resurrected for contemporary downsizing and media discombobulation, Mitty is a natural fit for Stiller, whose best performances, from “There’s Something About Mary” to “Greenberg,” find heart and humor in the put-upon.

Here, however, Stiller seems solely interested in heart (and cute visual flourishes). The belly laughs that accompanied his 2008 “Tropic Thunder” are few.

In screenwriter Steven Conrad’s most promising idea, Walter is a photo researcher for Life magazine, his job doomed by the transition to a leaner online venture -- and by the fact that Walter has lost the photo slated for the final issue.

As much to impress his just-divorced co-worker Cheryl (a subdued Kristen Wiig) as to skirt the ire of his smug, head-chopping new boss Ted (Adam Scott), the usually passive Walter jets off to far-flung locales from the Himalayas to Iceland in search of the picture’s globe-trotting photographer (Sean Penn).

Computer Gotham

Walter’s transition from fantasy hero to the real thing proceeds in heavy-handed course. “Mitty” moves from CGI daydreams of Manhattan as a video game, to CGI “reality” of Walter traipsing over a volcano or plunging from a helicopter into a freezing, sharky ocean.

“Mitty” makes too little use of Wiig, though it makes room for a sweet performance by Shirley MacLaine (as Walter’s mom) and for endless plugs pitching eHarmony and Papa John’s Pizza.

In one fantasy scene that recalls the broader, sketch-style comedy of “Tropic Thunder,” Stiller and Wiig spoof, for no apparent reason, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” The bit doesn’t jibe with anything else in “Walter Mitty,” and it’s the funniest scene in the film.

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” from Twentieth Century Fox, had its world premiere Oct. 5 at the New York Film Festival, and opens across the U.S. December 25. Rating: **1/2 (Evans)

Swaggering Capitalism

Jia Zhangke’s “A Touch of Sin” shows a China spiritually disintegrating under capitalism, an increasingly violent country where the rich swagger and the poor struggle for their little portion of dignity -- a country, in other words, not all that different from the U.S.

The protagonists of its four stories, all based on widely reported incidents, resort to brutality in different ways and for different reasons -- anger, profit, self-defense, self-hatred. (One is a suicide.)

In the first and most arresting of the sections, a miner (Jiang Wu), tormented by his sense of fairness, gets pushed over the brink by the ostentatious corruption of local officials and the mealy-mouthed willingness of everyone but him to accept it.

It shows how obnoxious a real whistle-blower might be: always obsessing about injustice, acting out his fury in futile, damaging ways, hurling accusations at all the unhappy weaklings around him who just want to get on with their lives.

The other sections involve an armed robbery, a rape and a youth sinking into anomie. They’re absorbing (and gorgeously shot), but the whole feels disparate and, for that reason, a little unsatisfying.

“A Touch of Sin,” from Kino Lorber, is playing in New York and opens in Los Angeles on Oct. 11. Rating: *** (Seligman)

‘The Dog’

In August 1972, John Wojtowicz botched a bank robbery that was supposed to finance a sex change for his boyfriend (he called him his wife) and took the bank employees hostage. Excited crowds filled the Brooklyn street; three years later, Al Pacino played him in “Dog Day Afternoon.”

Wojtowicz, grown heavy and gray, is the subject of “The Dog,” a charming, sad and completely fascinating film by Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren. Wojtowicz is a motormouth who calls himself a pervert owing to his obsession with sex. He boasts three wives and 23 girlfriends, most of them presumably male.

The movie covers his first homosexual experience in the army; his involvement with the Gay Activists Alliance in New York; and his falling hard, in 1971, for Ernest Aron, the young transsexual who became his second wife ceremonially if not legally.

According to Wojtowicz, despite the six years he served in prison, he beat the system: “I won! Ernie got the sex change!” Ernie also dumped him (and died of AIDS in 1987).

Wojtowicz has nothing like Pacino’s beauty -- somebody in the movie calls him a troll -- but you can see how he talked himself into so many beds. He may be crazy and full of himself, but his magnetism is hypnotic, and it makes this modest documentary a delight from start to finish.

The New York Film Festival will screen “The Dog” again on Oct. 8. Rating: **** (Seligman)

What the Stars Mean:

***** Fantastic
**** Excellent
*** Good
** So-So
* Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)

Muse highlights include Broadway Box Office and an interview with Margaret Atwood.

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