Film Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Taking liberties is being generous in this Ben Stiller flick.

click to enlarge Film Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Courtesy photo

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty | C+

Ben Stiller’s very, very loose adaptation and well-intentioned neutering of James Thurber’s witty two-page short story has all the hallmarks of a holiday hit. It’s doggedly inoffensive, frequently amusing and even, at times, quite clever. It wears its big budget on its sleeve, jetting us to various exotic corners of the planet all while delivering a vague live-life-to-the-fullest message of enlightenment that appeals to the imaginations of the multiplex masses.

In other words, it dismisses much of what made Thurber’s 1939 satiric sketch so enduring: that most of us can only escape our lives of quiet desperation by retreating into the unspoiled realms of our imagination.

Instead, it seems to use the 1947 film starring Danny Kaye as its inspiration. Unfortunately, there’s no modern-day equivalent of Boris Karloff to step into the role of the villain. In fact, there isn’t a villain at all.

Instead, Stiller (who directed and stars) opts for a playfully bombastic and nakedly sentimental romantic fable. Stiller’s decision turns the short story’s afternoon daydreamer into a lonely schlub who embarks on a fantastical global quest that teaches him to embrace the world around him, which makes sense, I guess, to a guy who grew up in the entertainment industry. 

Set during the last days of Life magazine’s print publication, Walter Mitty (Stiller) is an unhappily single and mildly autistic “Negative Assets Manager” who must chase down the missing cover photo for the farewell issue. 

The problem is that the globe-trotting superstar photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), who took it — and describes it as the quintessence of everything Life stands for — doesn’t work in digital and doesn’t carry a cell phone.

With only a photo contact sheet to provide clues, Walter leaves his pathological daydreaming behind and hops a plane to Greenland in hopes of catching up with O’Connell. That, in turn, sends him on zany adventures in Iceland, Yemen, Afghanistan and, ultimately, the Himalayas — where he always seems one step behind his quarry. 

From a drunken helicopter pilot and a man-eating shark to a beautifully shot skateboarding scene and an erupting volcano, Walter’s grand-scale encounters offset his relentlessly deadpan reactions. It’s a weird mix that doesn’t quite work, because Stiller’s character is so emotionally muted, never betraying an authentic human reaction.

Even his scenes with Cheryl Melhoff (sweetly bland Kristen Wiig), the object of his desire (and the subject of all his first act fantasies), come off as unintentionally awkward. The two actors have no chemistry. This becomes most apparent when Cheryl transitions from friendly co-worker to intimate cell phone confidante.

Luckily, the supporting characters do a better job of filling out Walter’s life, with Shirley MacLaine as his straight-talking mum, Kathryn Hahn as his bubbly, high-strung sister, Adam Scott as a douche bag new boss, and Patton Oswalt as Todd from E-Harmony who, as a running gag, checks in with Walter to help him improve his dating profile.

There are also a few inspired jokes — the best of which is an extended riff on Benjamin Button — that recall Stiller’s brilliant sketch comedy beginnings; unfortunately, most of those taper off after the first 40 minutes.

Particularly unsettling is how director Stiller and, I assume, screenwriter Steve Conrad take corporate product placement to a whole new level. No longer content to simply be goods and services that characters use, companies like E-Harmony, Papa John’s and Cinnabon are presented as emotional touchstones in Walter’s journey to self-actualization. Yes, playing soccer with a group of Sherpas can be life-changing, but a fast-food pastry, slathered in sugary icing, is what happiness is all about.

And that’s the ultimate problem with Stiller’s take on Thurber’s classic. It’s one thing to repurpose a story into something of your own, but to abandon its intent in service of a unrecognizable plot and muddled message leads to the question: Why call it The Secret Life of Walter Mitty at all?

As watchable as his movie is, it’s hard to discern exactly what Stiller is trying to say. Walter literally evolves from meek wallflower to heroic adventurer over the course of a week, and the ultimate result is a date with a girl who seemed to like him just fine before the feats of derring-do. 

Maybe it’s ironic that the film’s inadvertent message is that the death of print coincides with the death of imagination — as Walter abandons his daydreams in order to partake in the kind of absurd quest only Hollywood could concoct. 

Of course, we all know that plane tickets to the Middle East don’t really cost $84, a week away from your desk usually results in immediate unemployment and David Bowie’s song is actually called A Space Oddity not Major Tom as its repeatedly referred to in the movie. 

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty opens Dec. 25 and is rated PG with a running time of 114 minutes.

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