Review: ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ needs a better imagination

Ben Stiller talks to the girl that he likes (Kristen Wiig) in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." Credit: Wilson Webb
Ben Stiller talks to the girl that he likes (Kristen Wiig) in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”
Credit: Wilson Webb

‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’
Director: Ben Stiller
Stars: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

There are few things less empowering than James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” a succinct short story that contrasts one wallflower’s fertile daydreams against his miserable, dead-end reality. And yet the tale has been adapted for film twice, first as a 1947 Danny Kaye musical, now as a dramedy starring and directed by Ben Stiller. The challenges of making it feature length are obvious and many, but first and foremost is that one must puff out a slender tale. For Hollywood, that means inevitably inverting the message, which means to speak to real-life drudgery of the everyperson. But that’s not feel-good.

Both movie versions turn on Mitty growing a pair. Stiller’s version simply caves in far quicker than the Kaye. This Mitty isn’t drowning in an unhappy marriage, perhaps because shy Manhattaners no longer so easily find a life partner. He’s an OK Cupid addict who’s also excellent at his admittedly archaic job: as a photo archivist at Life Magazine. He also likes a woman at his office (Kristen Wiig).

Life folded its print edition in 2007. Here’s, it’s lasted to about 2013. (Movie magic!) Hoping to keep his job as everyone else is laid off, he decides to throw his usual mousiness out the window and do something closer to one of the outsized fantasy sequences that pepper the narrative: he’ll try to locate a mysterious star photographer (Sean Penn) to get a needed photo, a mission that will take him all over the world.

Given his sketch comedy background, Stiller should be the ideal person for this. But the fantasy numbers — which drop around the halfway mark as our hero starts “living the dream” — aren’t particularly witty or even very escapist; they’re just big. Meanwhile the scenes of Mitty doing the impossible should be ridiculous — he battles sharks, hops on skateboards, rides with ten-sheets-to-the-wind helicopter pilots — but are played so sincerely they come off like the types of scenes Stiller would mock in “Tropic Thunder.”

That said, the film is funnier than it seems like it should have been. Stiller’s specific interpretation of awkward — stammering with notes of confidence that come from intelligence — proves winning, and two or three times the film lives up to its promise of inspired lunacy. Even though “Arcade Fire”-backed emo wins over, it’s hard to hate anything so nakedly in love with print media and analogue in general. That the film revolves around a piece of celluloid — and was filmed on film — is a way to get any cinephile on its side, even if only up to a modest point.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge


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