In 1939, The New Yorker magazine published The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a short story by James Thurber. In the story, Mitty passes through a day of errands in the city with his wife, while random events send him on wild daydream fantasies. (You can still find it on their website.) There’s no real plot to it, but that didn’t stop filmmakers from adapting it into a jewel caper comedy starring Danny Kaye in 1947. Now, director/star Ben Stiller has taken the same story in a different direction, a schmaltzy, product-placement-filled encouragement to "Stop Dreaming. Start Living." But darned if it doesn’t stir something in you, at least some of the time.
Walter Mitty (Stiller) is quiet, organized, and pinned under the weight of responsibility as the family breadwinner for his mother (Shirley MacLaine) and sister (Kathryn Hahn). He’d love to connect with pretty co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), or stand up to Ted (Adam Scott), his bearded meanie of a boss, but he can only do these things in his ultra-heroic daydreams, which just alienate him from people even further.
Along with Cheryl and many others, Mitty’s job as manager of LIFE Magazine’s vast collection of photographic negatives is threatened by layoffs when Ted arrives to terminate the company’s print edition and take it online-only. The final issue is set to feature a best-ever cover shot by travelling photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), but when Mitty can’t find the negative, he heads out to find O’Connell and retrieve it before the deadline. As you’d expect, his journey proves life-altering.
This is not a film that’s long on subtlety. Writer Steve Conrad’s story has a neat setup, but it makes too fine a point about Mitty’s lacklustre existence. LIFE‘s credo – a 29-word sentence about seeing the world, drawing closer, and connecting with humanity – seems to be everywhere around Mitty, at first to humiliate him, then becoming his philosophy. But despite some visual flourishes that literally paint it into the background, it’s so long and clumsily worded that trying to parse it takes us out of the picture every time it’s used. And it’s used a lot.
Long and clumsy is an equally adequate description of the whole first act, which flows like tree sap in January, despite the attempts of the gimmicky daydream scenes to bring the energy back. I like Stiller, but his comedy sometimes seems too desperately silly for my taste, and it’s well on that side of things here. The relationship with Cheryl also feels forced, and takes predictable turns.
But then Mitty hits the road, and the change in the story wakes everything up. Like Mitty himself, the film vastly improves when it interacts with life instead of relying on crazy fantasy – everything is much more grounded. It helps that cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh has gorgeous visuals of the landscapes of Greenland and Iceland to work with – they’re definitely worth seeing on a big screen. And you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by Stiller’s creative use of David Bowie’s Space Oddity on the soundtrack.
Stiller is fine in the title role – it’s well within his wheelhouse, when his directorial instincts don’t get in the way. Wiig is okay, too, but seems underused. Comedian Patton Oswalt gets a scene-stealing role as Mitty’s Match.com rep, who reaches him on the phone in the strangest of places. The other stars also fill their roles adequately, except perhaps the numerous companies name-checked here – enough to make you wonder if there wasn’t some desperate push to raise money for the production. (The real LIFE Magazine went online-only back in 2007.)
Despite it’s unevenness, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a passable family film. It doesn’t live up to its promise in the early going, but if you stick with it, it grows on you.
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